Help desks under siege

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.)

Have your say

How's your help desk faring?

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.

"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. She 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 her? "The people running around complaining about how much work they have to do and how much they hate their job," she 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.

On at least one point -- quality of service -- Clark isn't alone in his assessment.

Robert Last, content manager at HDI, an IT service and support association, says that while many companies still hire contractors to provide help desk support, it's a trend that's winding down as firms find that the quality of service isn't as high as they had expected.

"Some organizations just want people to answer the phone, [but] you get what you pay for," says Last. "Business leaders and consumers have soured on outsourcing because of the lack of service; it's now a marketing technique to [be able to] say, 'We answer our own phones.' "

Indeed, only 9.2% of respondents to HDI's 2009 Practices and Salary Report survey said they were currently outsourcing help desk staff, down from 11.3% in 2008, and just 4.6% of 2009 respondents said they were considering outsourcing, compared with the 10.2% who indicated that they were considering it in 2008.

When asked why they weren't outsourcing help desk staff more, 59.3% of respondents to the 2009 survey listed lack of control over service as the No. 1 issue, and 53.7% chose service quality as an additional reason.

Climbing incident rates

While help desk professionals are being stretched thin, the number of problems they are dealing with on average grew in 2009. According to HDI, 70% of help desks saw more incidents last year (read the breakdown below), even though most of them weren't supporting more customers. Last year, help desk staffs spent 75% of their time dealing with such incidents -- up from 67% in 2008 -- which in turn gives them less time to train, plan and develop strategies, says HDI.

"Help desk managers are continuing to be pressed to do more with their current resources," says Rich Hand, HDI's longtime executive director of membership who recently left the organization to start a new venture. "They are taking on more responsibility and expanding their role."

A silver lining?

In the long run, taking on more and varied tasks could aid help desk workers in their quest for advancement. Shouldering multiple responsibilities may expose them to more aspects of the business and to different managers than more sheltered help desk employees traditionally encounter.

Help desk incidents rise -- here's why

The number of incidents help desks are dealing with rose 8% from 2008 to 2009, according to the 2009 Practices and Salary Report from HDI. Here are some of the reasons for more incidents:

Poor product quality: 3%

Lack of customer competency: 5%

Increased awareness of support center: 7%

More customers: 19%

Expanded service offerings by the support center: 25%

Infrastructure or product changes

(upgrades, conversions, installations): 42%

Responses based on an HDI survey of 1,000 support center managers in 11 different industries from May through July of 2009

"Help desk managers are getting involved in the process, and that's vital in service management," says Hand. "They're cross-functionally working with other organizations of the business ... and they're starting to be seen as respected IT professionals instead of folks who're just stuck fixing problems."

David Gray hopes the added responsibilities he has carried during tough economic times will help him in the long run. Gray was hired two years ago as the IT support specialist at Advance Education Inc., which operates schools in California for children and adults with autism and other behavioral issues. He runs the help desk for the company's 350 users in multiple locations, and once he received the necessary certification, the company added systems administrator functions to his job. He also served as acting IT manager for three months while the company was looking to replace Gray's former boss.

"I got no additional compensation, no meetings with the board. I just knew the job had to be done," he says of the three-month stint.

Even if Gray's title doesn't reflect all he's done, the experience has given him the skills and the attitude to take on a larger role at some point -- either at his existing employer or elsewhere, he says.

"There's a big difference between an IT professional and someone who works on computers," Gray says, adding that a professional must constantly add to his or her skill set, whether there's a recession on or not. "The second you stop learning, you're outdated and you're out of a job."

Garretson is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. She can be reached at


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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