Help desks under siege

Hit hard by the recession, corporate help desks remain woefully understaffed, with little relief in sight.

For corporate IT managers, the start of the new year brings hope that budgets will grow, workloads will return to normal and the worst of the recession might be over.

Down in the tech department trenches, help desk professionals aren't feeling so optimistic. Struggling to support end users, help desk employees say that staff reductions, aging technology and higher incident rates have pushed their jobs from bad to worse, although they acknowledge that they're lucky in this economy to have jobs at all.

But is there a silver lining to the long hours, reductions in pay and benefits, and job insecurity that help desk professionals are currently enduring?

Perhaps, industry watchers say. Many help desk pros are shouldering new responsibilities and showing leadership qualities that could serve them well once employers emerge from strained economic conditions. Those that have successfully taken on new tasks, even additional titles, during these tough times are in a position to advance when their employers begin promoting and hiring again -- if they can make it to that point.

That, in a nutshell, is the state of the help desk for 2010: hanging on and hoping for better times.

Shrinking staff

At California State University, Stanislaus, help desk lead James Koelewyn, along with a few part-time assistants, supports 10,000 users, comprising students, faculty and staff.

The university has a separate department for desktop support when problems escalate, but Koelewyn and his stitched-together staff act provide triage for all the incidents that come in over the phone, via e-mail and at the walk-up help desk located in the university's library.

"Right now, with the state of California budget cuts, the problem is keeping [positions]," says Koelewyn, whose pay was cut by 10% in 2009. "They keep cutting back; pretty soon I may be looking at being the only one manning the help desk," he says.

That would put the ratio of end users to help desk staffers at 10,000-to-1. (Today, it's roughly 10,000-to-3, though his four part-time student assistants don't have clearance to perform all the tasks that Koelewyn can. The most help he's had since he's been at the university is eight part-time student assistants.)

Despite the lack of staff, Koelewyn feels that the help desk is doing a good job of supporting the user community; it often achieves his goal of responding to trouble tickets within an hour during business hours.

He has a long list of desired improvements that would make the help desk more efficient, such as a central knowledge base, remote control capabilities and a database of standard responses to common problems. However, even those relatively inexpensive items require employee hours, which are scarce.

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