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A future as a fixer-upper

Opportunities in computer repair are numerous. Is there one for you?

Most PC users are bold enough to open up their machines for long enough to install a new video card or add some memory. But what about actually fixing your PC when something’s wrong with it? Or better yet, charging someone else to fix their computer? That’s when most of us lose our nerve. More’s the shame, because PC repair and maintenance is a growing segment of the training industry that’s getting harder and harder to ignore.

Like my mechanic says, the beautiful thing about cars is that they all break. The same goes for computers. There are more than 100 million personal computers in use at the moment in the United States, with 50,000 new ones being thrown in the mix daily. That means someone has to fix them. “Although the pace of PC sales has slowed somewhat in the last year, they are still selling in the millions of units annually,” says Scott Mueller, author of “Upgrading and Repairing PCs”. “Some markets are selling more than ever, such as laptops. Every PC out there is an opportunity for service and repair.” Most PC breakdowns are the result of an electromechanical failure of some kind. But getting to the root of the problem and fixing it isn’t as simple as sticking on a new component or subassembly mounted on a plug-in board. To become proficient at tackling even small hardware problems, you will have to learn at least some strong basics about CPUs, disk drives, power supplies, motherboards, memory, expansion cards, diagnostics, DOS, formatting, partitioning, problem isolation, swapping out, and preventative maintenance.

Not so fast

Obviously, computer repair is not a career, or even an avocation, to be settled on lightly. In terms of time and money (and, really, what other terms are there?), the training commitment you’ll make will likely be substantial. So the first step might be doing some research about the salaries and job-satisfaction levels of people in this field before you take the plunge.

But learning about PC repair is nowhere near the same as making a career out of it.

You can spend virtually as much or as little as you want in gaining repair and maintenance chops. Most universities offer a four-year undergrad program in this very area, if you feel like putting in that much time and five figures’ worth of tuition.

At the other end of the scale are quick-and-dirty, learn-everything-now solutions, a discipline that might be on its way out. “We’re seeing the death of the the MCSE boot camp,” says Andy Bork, “Special Agent” (that is, operations manager) for the Minneapolis-based PC repair firm Geek Squad. “People are finding a lot more substance in 90-day or even year-long courses.”

School is cool

One good middle-ground tactic might be night school. A typical program in this category is the one offered by the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. LIU offers a three-part certificate program in computer repair that includes classes focusing on operating systems, the mechanics of computer hardware, troubleshooting and diagnostics, and A+ certification. The beauty of LIU’s PC repair curriculum is that all classes are conducted on Saturdays, none are more than three months in duration, and you can get the whole enchilada for around $1,500. Odds are, a college or university near you offers a similar program.

As for distance learning, again, options abound in this category. If all you’re after is the aptitude to maintain your own PC, an online course will certainly do some good.

But while Bork doesn’t discount distance learning, he maintains that an ounce of hands-on experience is worth a pound of classroom knowledge. “At Geek Squad, the minimum we ask for is three years of real-world experience, or a minimum of two years’ training,” Bork says. “And I’d say the bare minimum for doing any repair work on computers is an A+ certification, maybe even a two-year computer networking degree.”

(A+ certification is the industry standard for computer service technicians, is recognized worldwide as a standard of expertise. Its is sponsored by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), and certifies the competency of entry-level service technicians in the computer industry. The A+ program is backed by major computer hardware and software vendors, distributors, resellers and publications.)

If you find a place to get some training, make sure it’s a place where you can get your hands dirty. Ask the school you’re interested in what they offer in the way of apprenticeships and on-site repair jobs–this will make your first emergency on the job a little less trying. Bork recalls a now-defunct repair training facility in Duluth, Minn., at which “they ran the school like it was a job. You had firm deadlines; if you were late enough times, you could get fired. And your computer might be messed with at night so it didn’t work at all when you came in the next morning, and it was up to you to fix it by 10 o’clock. It’s crucial to have that box in front of you, and to have somebody throwing you curveballs.”

An up-and-down market

Two trends are changing the landscape of repair training: the ever-dropping prices of hardware components and the growing popularity of outsourcing among companies big and small. The former trend might discourage you–most consumers are now apt to just replace their PCs instead of having a technician put in a new hard drive–but the latter is a definite boon. “We’re seeing more and more outsourcing,” says Bork. “Often on service calls, the first words out of a client’s mouth are, ÔWe just let our IT staff go.'” So there are definitely some extra opportunities out there because of that.”

The home repair industry isn’t to be overlooked either, says Mueller. “I think the home market is in need of more knowledgeable and more competent service,” he says. “Many people don’t know what to do with their systems if they have problems after the warranty has expired. I think there is a lot of potential and opportunity for those who are knowledgeable, skilled, and enthusiastic.”

An experienced computer repair technician should earn around $90 per hour, depending on his or her experience level and the type of work done. That’s not a bad living, and in a field that tends to grow along with increasing production of PCs, it should become even more of a seller’s market.

Book smarts

PC repair is a good business to be in, but what if all you’re after is the ability to fix your family’s computers? There are lots of cheap-and-easy printed resources out there. To wit:

One of the best-known PC repair books is Stephen J. Bigelow’s “Troubleshooting, Maintaining and Repairing PCs.” This 1,500-page behemoth, now in its fifth printing, explains how each subsystem of an PC works. He also picks apart monitors, processors, DVD drives, diagnostic beep and power-on self test (POST) codes, modems, and more. There are troubleshooting sections scattered liberally throughout.

Scott Mueller’s “Upgrading and Repairing PCs” is even more of a warhorse, just released in its 14th edition. It covers much of the same ground as Bigelow’s book, and includes a DVD with more than two hours of digital video demonstrating PC maintenance and repair. Mueller goes over processors, motherboards, memory, the BIOS, IDE and SCSI interfaces, drives, removable and optical storage, video and audio hardware, USB, FireWire, Internet connectivity, LANs, power supplies, and even PC cases.

Geared more toward novices is Corey Sandler’s “Fix Your Own PC,” now in its seventh edition. Whether your computer is brand new or an old 286-based dinosaur, you’ll find what you need to make upgrade and repair decisions about memory, sound cards, data protection, and peripherals. Sandler’s book gets the nod for its detailed drawings and photos of the guts of a PC, so you’ll know what you’re looking at when you open yours.

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