By Colin Wood

Being in a compromised position can sometimes lead to new ideas -- something Los Angeles and many other cities know much about given their budget constraints and challenges of a new economy. And retiring IT staff is another such challenge, but the City of Angels has figured out a way to handle the problem -- at least for now. Los Angeles is using interns as a temporary solution to its IT help desk staffing issues, said Steve Reneker, general manager for the city's Information Technology Agency.

About 60 percent of the city's IT staff will reach retirement age within the next five years, Reneker said, and five of the seven full-time workers at the help services desk have already retired. Ideally, the city would replace the staff with new full-time employees because, as Reneker noted, hiring interns has a few disadvantages -- like the fact that they can’t work more than 24 hours per week, among others.

Because money is tight, however -- and because hiring full-time employees has some drawbacks of its own, such as being time consuming and expensive, and allocating funds for those positions is something Reneker's office no longer has the authority to do -- the city hired interns and determined how to work around the obstacles.

Another thing that made the hiring of interns a bit simpler is that some already were on staff to help the city switch operating systems from Windows XP to Windows 7. And because Los Angeles didn’t want a lapse in service for IT phone support, the fastest way to fill those vacant positions was to hire in-house, Reneker said, so they moved some of those interns to new positions at the help desk.

The help desk position are imperative. Though Los Angeles was unable to provide statistics on how many calls it receives throughout all of its departmental help desks, the Information Technology Agency -- which Reneker said serves about 20 percent of the city -- reported that in a recent one-year span, it received more than 17,000 phone calls and an additional 2,800 service requests by email.

Though the hiring of interns wasn't initially a huge benefit over hiring full-time staffers, Reneker said the solution ultimately turned out “really well” for the city. The retired help desk staff were very specialized – they could help with some software and basic hardware issues over the phone, he said, but they didn’t have the skills to handle field work. This new generation of interns, however, has a bigger skill set, he said, which allows the city to be more flexible.

“We’re able to rotate those on the help desk into the field so we don’t burn them out,” he said. “Because they’re interns, the turnover is going to be relatively high, so it’s important that we have a good backfill strategy for being able to deal with those resources.”

For up to the next 36 months, the city’s strategy will be to use its interns in both call center and field work positions, Reneker said. And while having employees who can fill that diverse range is a benefit, there are a couple of big disadvantages as well.

“You probably have a total cost that’s somewhat less, but you lose the institutional knowledge of people who understand how things work in the city, who the critical points of contact are, and legacy systems knowledge and things like that, so having that type of turnover doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting a consistent level of service," he said. "We’re definitely answering the phones, but what we’re seeing is there’s a decline in our ability to be able to resolve those calls on the first call before we transfer it or capture the ticket. It’s a Band-Aid. It’s not a long-term strategy we think is prudent for others to consider.”

Having interns on staff with larger skill sets led to the realization that there’s value in hiring people who have the flexibility to do multiple jobs, Reneker said, and the city plans to continue rotating its staff between the field and call center when the funds become available to fill those positions with full-time workers.