I recently heard from a friend in higher ed that they had been laid off. This person worked in the AV group as part of the overall IT department in their college. Two things stuck out to me about this layoff: first, that any school would consider laying off parts of its AV team after these teams are who brought the school through the past 17 months. Second, the AV group is under the IT umbrella, meaning the person doing the laying off is considered an IT person.
Let me start with the second point. There has been a bit of debate in the AV industry on whether or not AV is IT or if it simply stands alone. In most higher ed organizations, AV does fall under the CIO. I don’t want to re-ignite that debate here, as I think that most sides have been well-argued and reasoned. I do fear, however, that actions such as this layoff will cause some people to point and say, “See, that is why AV should not be under IT.” While I understand this reaction, I don’t agree with it. I think the issue is actually a bit deeper.
I believe AV is something we all see every day in our regular life; everyone suddenly thinks AV is easy because things like cameras, mics, headsets and Zoom became such a part of our lives over the past year. We made it easy for people (as we always have done). That is what we are really good at (especially those of us in higher ed). What we are not really good at is developing and presenting a business case or talking about the degree of skill and knowledge that goes into making things look easy. We are also not very good at collecting and presenting data. If layoffs are starting to happen at colleges, then maybe right now is a good time for tech managers to get very good at these things.
I have a few thoughts on how to do this: My first suggestion is to truly understand what you do and how much it costs. You need to act as though your department is a business: Make decisions as if you were running said business. As you think about the day-to-day support you provide to clients, are you documenting those? Do you use a ticketing system? If you don’t, you need to start immediately.
Think of this example: You are running a business and the IT help desk told you it handles 300 tickets per week through three technicians at $8 a ticket. The AV team tells you, “Yeah, we were very busy last week.” What would your reaction be? I think that with a response like that, a manager would feel as though the AV team could be cut down.
However, what if that same AV team told you it has a single tech who responded to 15 calls last week within five minutes? Each of the calls was fixed within ten minutes — and the class continued. These classes consisted of 900 students who lost only a couple of moments of class time, compared to losing an entire class time if there had been no one able to respond. Even if you only consider the time worked in responding to these calls by the tech, each call costs $53. Suddenly, your manager starts to realize the value you are presenting.
In both cases, your manager also has the ability to compare costs. If they are going to outsource your help desk, will they be charged more than $8 per call? If they outsource the classroom support, will they still be guaranteed the response time at the same $53 per call?
Second, most of us are doing installs over the summer (and likely more installs than support). How are you showing the value of those installs to your management teams? Our typical rule of thumb has been that a hired design, installation or programming costs about as much as the equipment that is purchased for any room. If the equipment is $15,000, we estimate that the programming, design and installation would also cost $15,000 to bring the total space cost to $30,000. This is where we really start to see money savings. If we have a budget of $150,000 for classroom installations and renovations over the year, that equates to about ten classrooms we can do each year if we do them in-house. Comparatively, we would only be able to do five installations/renovations if we outsourced. This is only one example, as cost of labor should also include salaries of technical support.
On top of understanding this accounting and more, I also suggest that you go out and talk with companies. Get quotes for what it would cost to outsource all of this. Make sure your numbers are accurate and true. You should spend some time putting these numbers together accurately. Not only will this show the management you are providing value, but it will show them you are thinking about more than just protecting your job. Be prepared with this information when people start asking about costs or discussing layoffs. Some people don’t do this because they fear someone may realize their services are not efficient or cost-effective. Unfortunately, that is only going to ensure you are not in control when others start looking at the numbers.
Finally, I encourage you to find ways to get the decision-makers into the rooms you are actively working in. Take some examples from our IT colleagues; don’t just show them how easy everything is to work. Show them the design and go through the programming with them. Help them understand AV-over-IP implications in a space. If I’m being honest, I encourage you to make them leave the room thinking about the complexity of an install.
While this plan may not have worked for my friend, it may work for others. I fear many schools are going to start looking at their budgets as we move out of the Covid period and start thinking about where they can fill holes. Information is powerful and hard to argue with. Most managers want to do what is right for their organization and their students. Showing the value of what you do certainly can’t hurt you or your team’s chances of avoiding layoffs.