Help desks under siege

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

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"We're already on furloughs, but [in 2010] they're talking about not having furloughs and cutting staff instead," says Koelewyn, who has been with the university for eight years.

Growing responsibilities

Other help desk professionals find themselves stretched in different ways. As companies have reduced their ranks, many help desk employees have had to take on additional titles such as systems administrator or network manager, often without a pay increase or other recognition.

Adam Frost joined ID Solutions, an IT service provider in San Diego, about a year ago, and he quickly added network administrator to his current title of help desk manager. He is one of seven help desk workers supporting 1,100 users.

Although his network administrator tasks, such as setting up servers, don't add to the number of end users he supports, they do require him to put in more hours, sometimes on the weekends.

While Frost feels that his company doesn't fully appreciate the contributions the help desk makes to the business -- until recently, his department's office at one of ID Solutions' locations was a supply closet -- he's not about to complain, not now at least. "It is what it is," says Frost of his situation. "I'm happy to have a job."

Other help desk professionals find themselves performing tasks that fall outside the realm of the IT department altogether. Dustin Hane is systems administrator at International Commerce & Marketing Corp., a catalog and Internet marketing and manufacturing company based in Milwaukee. He and another staffer are responsible for providing help desk support to the company's 143 employees.

Following a wave of 50 layoffs that hit the company during the second half of 2009, Hane additionally began taking calls from external customers wanting to place orders or looking for general customer service.

"I don't mind doing the extra work, [though] it keeps me really busy," says Hane. What does bother him? "The people running around complaining about how much work they have to do and how much they hate their job," he says. "They need to be very happy that they have a job."

Disappearing full-time positions

Instead of reducing head count or adding responsibilities, some companies are dealing with the uncertain business climate by forgoing full-time help desk employees altogether and using contract or part-time workers to whom they don't need to pay benefits.

While such moves may help cut costs in the short term, piecing together a department from contract and part-time workers isn't a tenable long-term strategy, argues Don Clark, a help desk analyst at Health Care Service Corp. (HCSC), which operates Blue Cross Blue Shield companies in a number of states.

Clark isn't employed by HCSC; rather, he works for Technisource, an outsourcer that provides help desk staff to HCSC on a contract basis. Clark argues that the setup represents a troubling trend among larger companies for myriad reasons -- it's not a cost-saver in the long run, once the middleman's fees are factored in; there's a higher turnover rate among contract workers; and the quality of service provided is not comparable, leading to a higher incidence of call escalation.

"The biggest issue [on the help desk] is the sheer size and complexity of systems," says Clark, emphasizing that his strong opinions on the subject of help desk outsourcing are his own.

"We've got hundreds of programs involved, but no one can be an expert in enough of them," which causes more trouble tickets than necessary to get a problem escalated to the next level of support. It's preferable to get a solution without escalation, Clark says, "but given the size and complexity of the systems, that's not always possible" using outsourcers.

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