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What You Need to Know to Succeed as a Technical Trainer

A growing demand for effective IT instruction promises a thriving job market for those skilled a teaching technology to others. Do you have what it takes to succeed as a technical trainer?

Man ponders future in computer labDo you love to learn new things? Are you a creative, innovative thinker who thrives on coming up with better ways to work and learn? Does it make your morning when you help someone have a “eureka!” moment and see the light bulbs begin to flash? If so, then the role of IT trainer just might be the career for you.

 

With thousands of training centers across the United States and an expected job growth of 7 percent between now and 2014 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), you’ll find that there is a solid demand for skilled technical trainers not only here in the United States, but globally as well. According to the BLS, trainers (or learning development specialists) typically earn a median salary of $57,340 per year. Salary.com reports a slightly higher wage for IT trainers, with median earnings at $65,440 and a typical salary range between $56,985 and $74,261 annually.

 

You’ll find technical trainers working in a variety of environments ranging from formal academic settings (universities, community colleges and a rapidly increasing number of high schools have certification programs) to in-house corporate trainers, trainers for specific vendors or vendor learning partners, and entrepreneurs who run their own training companies. Depending on where they’re employed, trainers not only present material and teach certification classes, but may also be asked to participate in curriculum and exam development.

 

What skills are needed?

 

There is a famous quote from George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, which says “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. The real truth is that not everyone who is technically skilled is able to teach and train others. The most successful IT trainers possess a variety skills including superior technical skills and expertise, extensive real-world experience, education and certifications, along with a multitude of soft skills.

 

Technical skills are the cornerstone of an IT trainer’s success. If you are interested in becoming a technical trainer, then first and foremost you need to be an expert in the subject matter that you’re trying to teach. Despite the fake-it-till-you-make-it philosophy that seems to be so prevalent today, there are some things that simply can’t be faked. There is no substitute for knowledge! If you don’t know the material you’re trying to teach — and know it well — then chances are that you won’t have a very long or successful career as an IT trainer.

 

I recently had the opportunity to observe an advanced high school math class. An otherwise bright group of honors students with excellent grades happened to all be failing this one particular math course. In a span of fifteen minutes, the teacher had to consult the instructor’s guide on three different occasions.

 

Why? Because she didn’t know how to the work the problem she was presenting to the students and needed to review the instructor guide for the answer. It was plain that one of the contributing factors to why the students weren’t learning and performing as expected was a lack of subject matter expertise on the part of the instructor. You can’t teach what you don’t know. Know your material.

 

Experience is also vital. Technical skills alone aren’t the full measure of a successful IT trainer. You also need to possess a certain amount of real-world experience. How much experience is needed? It depends. In my opinion, the more difficult and advanced the subject matter you’re teaching, the more real-world experience you need.

 

First, the more experience you have in working with a technology, the better you will know the material. When you work extensively with a technology, it becomes second nature. You won’t have to think about how to implement the solution — you’ll know how to do it! You’ll also be able to approach the subject matter with more ease and personal confidence (which is an important soft skill for successful teachers).

 

Additionally, there are simply some scenarios, some problems, and some technical issues that aren’t covered in a textbook. Some skills can only be learned by working with technology for an extended period of time in a hands-on real-world environment.

 

In addition to the obvious benefits gained through experience, most employers want experienced professionals to fill the role of IT trainer. In preparation for this article, I conducted several job searches for IT trainers on various job boards. All job postings I reviewed listed “five to 10 years” of experience as a required qualification to be considered for the position. Experience matters!

 

Education and certifications are also an important element in the makeup of a solid technical trainer. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an entry level position as an IT trainer typically requires a bachelor’s degree. The job postings I reviewed support this assertion. I found that, without exception, all of those postings listed a bachelor’s degree in computer science, engineering, or a related discipline as a requirement to be considered for the position. In many instances, advanced-level degrees (masters or higher) were also included as required or preferred qualifications.

 

In addition to formal academic education, most IT trainer positions also list technology or vendor-specific certifications as required or preferred candidate qualifications. In some instances, specific train-the-trainer certifications (more about those in a moment) were required, along with demonstrable evidence of teaching skill and ability.

 

Soft skills are the final important ingredient required for a top-notch technical trainer résumé. Great technical skills, education and certifications and real-world workplace experience, aren’t all-encompassing when it comes to a career as an IT trainer. The most successful IT trainers are not only technically trained and proficient, but also possess superior soft skills.

 

Perhaps one of the most essential soft skills an IT trainer needs is the ability to communicate well. Remember, effective communication (whether written or spoken) is the responsibility of the sender (the IT trainer). The sender must ensure that the receiver (the student) not only receives the message, but understands it as well. When it comes to teaching, it really doesn’t matter if you are the best technical guru in the world if you can’t take the knowledge inside you and explain it to me in such a way that I understand the message.

 

In addition to excellent communication skills, IT trainers should possess superior presentation and public speaking skills, along with the ability to inspire and motivate learners. Good organization skills, along with a great sense of humor, are also a plus.