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Low-cost ways to get the IT skills you need

Do you have the practical experience you need to further your career? Here are five opportunities you may not have thought about.

In today's economic climate, competition for IT positions is greater than ever, so having experience in your field can be crucial. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to get the technical know-how you need. 

Here are five things you can do -- on the cheap -- to get the skills you need to move your career forward.

1. Set up a lab. Whether at home or work, it’s easy to set up a test environment to use as a learning tool. It may cost you a cheap computer, a Windows license and network simulator software, but almost everything else is free. This includes Windows XP Mode in Windows 7 (which is great for testing/learning), Linux, WireShark, BackTrack and numerous other network security tools. You could spend years learning about networking, operating systems and security from these resources alone.

2. Attend seminars and conferences. There are numerous free and inexpensive vendor-sponsored seminars around the country at any given time. If you have a few extra dollars in your budget, don’t hesitate to check out some of the lower-cost IT and security conferences like Data Connectors and SecureWorld Expo. Exposure to the latest technologies and knowledge gained from speakers at these shows is invaluable.

Note: Always remember to review your notes when you get back home or to the office. Make sure to do something with what you’ve learned while it’s still fresh in your mind.

3. Read and listen. Keeping up with the latest trends and tips on various IT portals and blogs is priceless. There’s a lifetime of experience and knowledge on the various TechTarget sites alone. I also still find a ton of value in print magazines. Some of my favorites include InformationWeek, Security Technology Executive and PC Magazine.

Learning on the go is another great way to gain valuable knowledge. Check out the numerous podcasts, webinars and audio programs available on the Web. Some are free and some are paid, but, either way, there are IT professionals out there sharing knowledge that you can use to advance your skills.

4. On the job. You don’t have to get experience on your own time. If you have a flexible job where you can learn as you go, take advantage of it. If you’ve got someone willing to hire you because they like you and know that you can develop your skills in a short period of time, go for it.

5. Mentoring programs. Mentoring programs (typically found in larger organizations) are a great way to learn the ropes from those who already have the experience you desire. Also, they are often tied to the job you already have. Through mentoring, you can get high-quality help from someone who understands your job. You can shave years off your learning curve by letting a skilled professional explain how things are done.

There are also numerous internship programs that can help. The difference is that you probably won’t get the personal coaching you’d receive through a mentoring program. That said, I recommend jumping on either of these opportunities if possible.

Something else to keep in mind is that practice does not make perfect. Rather, perfect practice makes perfect. Focus on making the most out of your learning experiences.

If I had to choose between three job candidates -- one with a college degree and no experience, one with several IT certifications and no experience and one with nothing but hands-on experience, I’d choose the latter every time. That’s why it’s up to you to take the initiative and get hands-on experience yourself, through whatever means necessary.

About the author: Kevin Beaver is an information security consultant, expert witness, author and professional speaker with Atlanta-based Principle Logic LLC. With over 22 years of experience in the industry, Kevin specializes in performing independent security assessments revolving around minimizing information risks. He has authored/co-authored nine books on information security including the best-selling Hacking For Dummies. In addition, he’s the creator of the Security On Wheels information security audio books and blog providing security learning for IT professionals on the go. You can reach Kevin through his website and follow him on Twitter at @kevinbeaver.

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An internship is another option. They're not necessarily just for younger college age students. I completed my internship when I was older than the traditional college student. 

I think it's good that you would consider candidates that don't hold a degree. I think it depends on what area of IT someone is interested in going into. At my company, almost all software developers have a degree. A couple were hired while they were still working on a degree, they are the only exception. 

I think that obtaining a degree from a good program provides a good foundation for the experience that you'll gain. A degree doesn't have to be extremely expensive, either. 
Thanks for your feedback, abuell. Great points!
I've always used volunteer work as a way to build additional experience on my resume. If you already have a relationship with a non-profit organization, they may let you work with their paid staff or start a small project on your own and build it up, learning as you go.
CarolBrands, what type of volunteer work have you found? I did something similar - I called up several local organizations and asked if they'd be interested in a summer intern (unpaid - basically volunteer work). Nothing ended up working out, though. It seems difficult to find volunteer work in IT.
I would say volunteer or an internship like other have mentioned. The problem here is with all the data breaches lately and security risks a lot of companies may not want to take a risk with their data.
Just thought of another possibility. Depending on your skills and degree you might even find work as a tutor at a local college. It's becoming tougher to find jobs when you have put your faith/trust in less experienced people with little to no past work history. Too many bad people are making life harder for the honest hard working ones looking to better themselves.
Interning, volunteering with a non profit, setting up your own server in the cloud and pointing others to it, blogging as a way to "learn in public"... there are a wealth of ways to get the skills you need that require little in the way of expense or formal class work. If the goal is to get involved with hardware like specific routers or switches, that's not as easy, but if the goal is to work on the underlying concepts in a broad sense, a moderately powered laptop with a few virtual Linux machines can do a lot to teach a broad array of IT skills. 
Some great ideas in the article. I'd mention that such path also shows self-motivation and drive, which are important personal qualities to consider in hiring.