I've read through this entire thread... Almost everyone says go to school first, then maybe grab a some certs. (I'm simplifying of course)
This is what I've done. I'd love to get a job as a network engineer at a telco... So I in May I'll be graduating with my degree in Computer Systems and Network Administration from Michigan Tech University, it's a four year program that's pretty new ( I'll be the in the 3rd graduating class). I've been working with Cisco routers since my 2nd year here and I love it. True, we mostly have 2500 series in our labs, but that is slowly changing. I've worked with OSPF and BGP, of course they're not the huge networks you'd see in industry, but I do have the experience on the devices, albeit in a limited sense. I went out and got my CCNA last semester without much trouble.
I've also worked for three years with the university IT department, I basically maintain a database of all the network jacks on campus along with doing various wiring jobs that come up when other staff is out of the office. I've also held a job at a place that does support desk for area wide schools. So I've done the helpdesk thing as well and I know that I'm ready for a little more than that...
But my question is how do you get that first job? I've looked at monster and careerbuilder and applied to tons of network engineering jobs... but no replies... Everyone wants 5+ years of experience, which I can understand, but how are you supposed to get that experience?
How do you get your foot in the door?
I'm almost tempted to do an AskSlashdot with this post... and hope it doesn't get buried and forgotten.