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Tech to the rescue: As business moves online, IT jobs more essential than ever — for now

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Joseph Ruffin at his home office in Nicetown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Joseph Ruffin at his home office in Nicetown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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For almost every tactile experience in the pre-COVID-19 world, there is now an online analogue.

Even springtime and the experience of shopping for fresh produce and plant starters, most safely happens through a screen.

“Because we’re a farm and a garden center, most people want to do it as a very sensual experience,” said Meg Debrito, executive director of Philadelphia’s Greensgrow Farms. “Most people want to come in and look around and take in the spring feeling.”

But, this year, coronavirus put the kibosh on plant-perusing and flower-smelling in person at the urban garden. The farm also didn’t hire its normal complement of seasonal workers.

With workers across the region ordered to work remotely, and businesses attempting to pivot their operations into online offerings, often-invisible information technology workers have become more essential than ever.

The modern online workspace has two layers. The availability of user-friendly tools for video conferencing and website-making means laypeople can move parts of business online. But making these tools work together — for example, making sure e-commerce, marketing and operations sync up — often takes specialized knowledge and support.

For Greensgrow, e-commerce has become especially important, a bridge to help the organization raise funds during the planting season. DeBrito taught herself how to build out the online sales portal, but she can’t keep everything running smoothly without leaning on a tech firm.

“We have a really great small tech company, Bellia Technologies, that we can call and they can flex and plug in with us when we need help,” she said.

Customer Emma Bergman (left) and Zach Sklarsky (right), a Greensgrow employee. (Courtesy of Meg DeBrito)

The Greater Philadelphia YMCA was one of the first area companies hit hard by coronavirus layoffs. In March, it laid off 4,000 workers and shuttered its 21 locations.

Part of the skeleton crew that remains is seven IT workers who have worked 12-hour-days to shift an organization known for physical recreation into a virtual holding pattern.

“The question was: how do you carry on? Without those connections out there to all the members and all the parents,” said Mark Morrison, the organization’s vice president of information technology.

Carry on, they have. In the first days after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf shut down ‘non-essential’ businesses, Morrison helped with a push to reach out to all of the Y’s 30,000 members. Then, they needed to set up call centers — to field questions from members but also staff.

“We now work like a start up,” said Morrison. As formerly distinct parts of the business come crashing together — customer service, operations, content for a new website with workouts and managing staff — each part has its own IT Needs.

“I think we’ve become integral to the survival of the Y,” he said.

‘Good to be able to help’

Stories like this have been helping to insulate at least some tech workers from coronavirus layoffs. More than 1.3 million Pennsylvanians have lost work and applied for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus. Information industry workers — including broadcasting, publishing, telecommunications and data processing — have had the lowest number of claims, although not all filings could be classified.

Some IT workers have shifted into overdrive.

“It was 24/7… people refused to go home,” said John Marcante, the chief information officer for The Vanguard Group, Inc., a financial services company headquartered in Malvern.

It took three shifts working around the clock to set up virtual workspaces after the company announced it would let 14,000 people in its workforce do their jobs from home.

Part of that was delivering the necessary hardware, through what Marcante called “virtual factories,” contactless pick-up sites for computers and other equipment.

“We’d load it in the back of your car, keeping distance, social distance,” he said. “You’d get home, and you’d call our internal help desk, and our internal help desk would triage the equipment.” The company also did dry runs of some of the new systems before rolling them out to employees.

With the economy in turmoil, Vanguard’s advisors are in high demand.

However, economists predict white-collar workers who have been so far spared from mass layoffs may be hit in future rounds, as the coronavirus crisis transitions into long-term economic stagnation.

Joseph Ruffin, whose company Network Design Technologies, Inc. provides technical support to malls and other large physical retailers, has already seen his business suffer.

“Over the last month, we’ve probably averaged three calls a week that we’ve gone on, versus three calls a day,” he said, noting an 85% decline in business.

Normally a company with 10 workers, Network Design’s only current full-time employee is Ruffin. He is looking into government contracts to try to make up some of the business he’s lost, but said the cost of changing his business model and marketing differently may be prohibitive.

When calls do come in, Ruffin, a military veteran, feels proud to be able to help patch the Wi-Fi at a grocery store, or the phones at a pharmacy or other “essential” retail business.

“It feels really good to be able to help,” he said. “I’m just that kind of person.”

For Morrison at the YMCA, being among the last of the employees still standing — asked to fill the void of layoffs — comes with a pang of guilt.

“Oh, it’s very painful. I have always viewed the staff as my first customer,” he said. “And now we’re saying we’re going to turn around and do their work.”

But there’s also a pride in being able to continue operations for the Y’s members.

Like many other businesses, the Y is using videoconferencing software in ways it never anticipated, with instructors hosting classes via videoconferencing a few times a week.

In one lesson this week, Pam Dimeler guided more than 50 seniors through a program called Senior Strut as she worked remotely from home.

It was part gentle workout, part socialization.

“We’re going to open up … the mics,” said Dimeler, “So we can talk to each other, which might be interesting.”

As life adapts to these unprecedented times, virtual spaces provide opportunities for connection and a break from isolation — spaces for which we have tech workers to thank.

“We’re not allowed out. We’re confined to our apartments. And … we’ll get through it,” said one class participant.

“You will,” assured Dimeler. “And you’ll come take my class every day!”

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