Competing forces are affecting people who work on help or service desks. One is improving automation tools, which advocates say can replace level 1 and 2 support staff. At the same time, the number of help desk tickets is rising each year, which puts more demand on the service desk.
These cross-currents in the industry make it hard to predict the fate of some IT jobs. A Pew survey, released in August, of nearly 1,900 experts found a clear split on what the future may bring: 52% said tech advances will not displace more jobs than they create by 2025, but 48% said they will.
Either way, a push toward automaton is certain. In the help desk industry, the goal is to keep as many calls for help at either Level 0, which is self-help, or Level 1, as possible. It's called "shift-left" in the industry.
"It costs way more to have a Level 3 or Level 2 person to resolve an issue, and it also takes a lot more time,' said Roy Atkinson, an analyst at HDI, formerly known as the Help Desk Institute. To keep costs down, help desks are increasingly turning to automation and improvements in technologies such as national language processing, he said.
A Level 1 worker will take an initial call, suggest a couple of fixes, and then -- lacking the skill or authority to do much more -- escalate the issue. The Level 2 worker can do field repair work and may have specific application knowledge. A Level 3 escalation might involve working directly with application developers, while Level 4 means taking the problem outside to a vendor.
Among the companies developing automation tools is New York-based IPsoft, a 15-year old firm with more than 2,000 employees. It develops software robotic technology and couples it with management services.
A majority of IT infrastructure will eventually be "managed by expert systems, not by human beings," said Frank Lansink, the firm's CEO for the European Union. IPsoft says its technology can now eliminate 60% of infrastructure labor tasks.
IPsoft's autonomic tools might discover, for instance, a network switch that isn't functioning, or a wireless access point that is down. The system creates tickets and then deploys an expert system, a software robot with the programming to make the repair. If it can't be done, a human intervenes.
Many service desk jobs have been moved offshored over the last decade, displacing workers. That trend is ongoing. One of the ideas underlying IPsoft's business models is a belief that offshore, as well as onshore, labor costs can be further reduced through automation.
Offshore firms are clearly interested. IPsoft's platform was adopted last year by Infosys and, more recently, by Accenture.
One IT manager using IPsoft's automation technology and services to support his firm's infrastructure -- including its network, servers and laptops -- is Marcel Chiriac, the CIO of Rompetrol Group, a Romania-based oil industry firm with 7,000 employees serving Europe and Asia.
"Without the automation, we would have to pay a lot more" for IT support, said Chiriac.
The cost savings arise from automatic repairs and routine maintenance that might otherwise be neglected, said Chiriac.
If he weren't using autonomic tools, Chiriac said he would have to hire more people for a similar level of service. But he can't easily estimate the impact on staff because of the firm's IT history. (Rompetrol Group outsourced its 140 IT staff, ended that relationship, then rebuilt an internal IT staff with about two dozen fewer workers; it also uses outsourcing as a supplement.)
Nonetheless, Chiriac doesn't believe that infrastructure automation will necessarily eliminate IT jobs, though it may shift them to other IT areas. "In IT, we're not going to run out of work for the next two generations," said Chiriac.
The work that help or service desks are asked to take on is increasing. Two-thirds of 1,200 organizations surveyed by HDI reported that the number of tickets, either to fix something broken or to outfit a new hire or change permissions, for instance, os increasing annually by more than 60%.
The top five reasons for this increase, according to HDI's survey, is an increase in the number of customers at surveyed firms, a rising number of applications, changes in infrastructure, increases in the scope of services, and the need to support different types of equipment and more devices. That latter could reflect BYOD use.
At the same time, support is being transformed in new ways. Service desks may, for instance, now act as a liaison for all service providers, including cloud and mobile carriers, said Atkinson.
"I think a lot of people have been predicting the death of support for a number of years, and it hasn't happened," said Atkinson.