Survey highlights IT staffing inequities

Canadian enterprise CIOs feel that, on average, their IT support teams are understaffed by almost half, according to a recent survey by Menlo Park, California-based IT staffing firm Robert Half International.

Almost 300 Canadian enterprise-level CIOs were surveyed; respondents said that, on average, their IT teams were 46 per cent smaller than they would like them. Currently, the average number of end users assigned to a technical support employee is 89. CIOs would like to see that number go down to 48 end users per IT staffer.

Companies with between 500 and 999 employees were closest to their ideal employee per IT staff ratio, with a ratio of 79 to 1 (compared to their ideal of 51 to 1), while small companies struggled with a mean ratio of 91 to 1, as opposed to the best-case scenario of 46 to 1.

Geoffrey Thompson, an Ottawa-based division director with Robert Half, said that he was relatively unsurprised by the results.

“What’s driving the demand is that organizations are now realizing that the technical support area is a level of support that is needed to provide employees (with the tools to reach) a certain level of service requirements. It’s a direct reflection on their bottom line—they’re unable to be productive (if their IT doesn’t work),” he said.

The trendiness of optimal productivity is augmented by the ever-growing reach and power of technology including, said Thompson, the new tools, upgraded systems, and software packages available.

Mobility’s march into the enterprise has added another layer of responsibility for the IT support person, who has to manage the mobile devices and constant connectivity brought about by this development.

Add to this the “consumer creep” effect, said David Woelfle, chief technologist with outsourcing vendor EDS Canada: “With the proliferation of media devices in the home, users expect the same level of support maturity in the business environment. And users are also a lot more computer literate these days.”

Thompson cites cost as a major barrier to employing the desired number of IT support staff. “(IT workers) are not creating anything new,” he said, “They keep things up and running, so it’s seen as an additional cost. It’s not as flashy as a new server or ERP system, even though they’re the ones in the trenches, solving requests.”

Said Woelfle: “Most companies just can’t afford it. If a PC support worker costs between $45,000 and $65,000 a year, it gets pretty expensive.”

Even if a company has the money and the motivation to hire on more support staff, it can be very tough to find anyone suitable. Said Thompson: “It’s a candidate-short market, with people in great demand.” This is resulting in companies having to diversify their recruiting tactics and offer better compensation to snag the more coveted workers.

Woelfle said that many companies are still operating under assumptions from the early noughties that allowed employers to put together a wish list and handpick the perfect candidate.

Now, with the skills shortage at hand, companies still have their high expectations, and thus cannot find the entry-level workers experienced enough to fill them.

“They’re looking for the perfect hire, and five or six years ago, there was a wealth of people. Now, they’re not out there anymore,” said Woelfle. “And (entry-level workers are) not getting their chance to start…People need to start hiring people right out of school—these kids are really good, especially as they’ve grown up with technology.”

But there are ways around the staffing and cost issue, according to Woelfle, who said that the number of large enterprises with decent staff-to-employee ratios is unsurprising as those are the companies that tend to automate and remotely control a lot of their IT support functions, resulting in fewer IT staff (who also have more time).

EDS Canada, he said, has a number of large enterprises who run a streamlined IT support operation with one IT staffer per 150 or 200 people, with an eventual target of one per every 200 to 400 end users. He also suggests bringing in a supplemental workforce, courtesy of outsourcers, for a couple of times a month (or as needed) as a cost-effective solution.

Even smaller organizations can become more efficient by standardizing their practices, which makes it easier for IT support teams to do their job. “This can be done very inexpensively,” he said. Woelfle predicts that these two practices will eventually trickle down to even the smaller organizations, resulting in better support, if not smaller ratios.

These cost-saving measures might be the only realistic future, said Kevin Dee, CEO of the Ottawa-based IT staffing firm Eagle Online, as he thinks the actual ratios will stay the same for a good while.

He said, “It’s hard to quantify the return on investment of a 50 to 1 ratio over a 90 to 1 ratio…It comes down to the almighty dollar—it’s hard for the bean-counters to look at productivity and measure it (to justify the hiring of more IT support staff).”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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