Certification, not College Classes, Secured Vet’s First IT Job

by Janet Pinkerton | Mar 27, 2012

An IT career was something Derrick Graham pursued for years, completing online-college level IT classes while enlisted in the Navy and working as an aircraft mechanic.  But it wasn’t until he completed CompTIA certifications required by Department of Defense Directive 8570 at a New Horizons Learning Center in Durham, N.C., that Graham won his first IT job.

Derrick Graham“I didn’t get my first break until after obtaining Security+, which met one of the DoD Directives,” says Graham, now a help desk analyst with the U.S. Army Reserves (USARC) at U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.  “It was a process.”

In 2010, after five years in military service, Derrick Graham had to decide whether re-up with the Navy for an aircraft-centric career, or transition out of the service and pursue IT, the field he had long preferred, full time.

The economy was in recession. But Graham thought he had an advantage because—despite moves from naval air stations in Brunswick, Maine, to Jacksonville, Fla., and tours of duty in Qatar and Djibouti, Africa—he had steadily taken college-level IT classes at Southern New Hampshire University and Jacksonville, Florida Technical College and online, pursing a bachelor’s degree in information technology through Walden University.

“I was almost done with my degree, I thought I’d get out, and I should be fine,” recalls Graham, explaining that he liked the diversity of opportunities, growth and the security of the IT job market.

But after his discharge on Sept. 15, 2010, Graham was only offered contract aircraft mechanic jobs, most in Iraq or Afghanistan on a four-month rotation.  “Every time I went to a job fair (seeking an IT job), people would say, ‘we need you to have certifications,’” recalls Graham. “They were looking for someone who has A+, Network+ or other certifications.”

So Graham put his degree on hold and started working on his first certification: CompTIA Network+, an exam he successfully took (despite not having the A+ credential) soon after finishing a networking course.

He was interested in taking a course with his local New Horizons’ Computer Learning Centers, but was not able use his GI benefits until after October 2011, when the Post 9/11 GI Bill non-college degree (NCD) program came into effect, and the New Horizon’s Durham, N.C., location was approved as a GI vocational training center.

“For me, the selling point (in working with New Horizons) was that they not only help you get certified, they also help you with career searches, preparing for the interview process, how to dress, what to wear—the whole process of landing a job.”

Since enrolling in classes at New Horizon, Graham has since earned his CompTIA A+ and Security+ credentials, along with a MCTS Windows 7.

He began looking for a job after the winter holidays, once he had earned what he dubs “The CompTIA Three”  (the A+, Network+ and Security+ credentials). He found his current job in about four weeks, starting in February.

In mid-March, Graham was working on MCTS Server 2008 Active Directory. He goes to class three nights a week, for three to four hours each night, driving an hour each way from his home to the New Horizons center in Durham. He estimates he studies as many hours as he’s in class, using extra study materials in addition to the course-provided content.

New Horizon’s instructor-led classes have been invaluable. “You get to actually touch and see the equipment to work on concepts you only knew in theory,” he says.  His instructors have become sounding boards for his career search and, on occasion, job-related tech questions.

He’s proud of his first IT job, which he secured through a TEK Systems recruiter, but plans to move beyond the help desk role.  Short term, he next aims for an enterprise desktop support job.  He plans to earn more certifications (Active Directory, Server Infrastructure, CCENT and CCNA) using his GI benefits at New Horizons, with a long-term goal of becoming a security administrator and completing his bachelor’s degree in IT with a concentration in security.

“You get what you put into it,” says Graham, speaking of his work to transition out of the Navy into an IT career through New Horizons.  “No risk, no reward. The effort is worth the reward.”

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