Who Will Fix the Year 2000 Problem?

The conversion project calls for a slew of new workers who will demand top dollar as the pool of qualified techies shrinks

Along with all the other gloom-and-doom statistics about the year 2000 issue, some say that not enough experienced computer workers exist to fix or prevent the problem.

While the true situation may not be quite that bad, the year 2000 computer conversion still will create a recruiting problem for some companies and an employment bonanza for some programmers.

"Solving the problem requires technicians to fix software code and engineers to replace hardware," said Sally Katzen, administrator of the office of information and regulatory affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, in testimony before a House panel earlier this month.

In a job market where it is already difficult to find high-tech workers, locating and training people to do this job will not only be a great challenge, but it will pull them from other duties. "There is... a real potential of a substantial strain on [a] key resource needed to fix systems -- expertise," said Katzen.

"It's already virtually impossible to find these people," said Sherrie Merrow, director of professional services at Viasoft, a systems integrator based in Phoenix. Merrow said she has hired 50 people so far to do year 2000 conversion work and will soon hire 50 more. Having exhausted the pool of applicants from advertising and word of mouth, Merrow is now working with headhunters.

Besides those 100 new, full-time staffers, Merrow has 75 subcontractors working on the project. What's unusual about these free-lancers is that Merrow has them sign a contract that says they can't take what Viasoft is teaching them about year 2000 and work for another company.

Those employees most in demand, she said, are senior-level people who already have year 2000 experience from working with a company that had addressed the problem early on. Such people -- who are fairly rare -- have titles like year 2000 program or project manager and have already signed contracts for the next three years at salaries from $120,000 to $200,000, Merrow said.

Specifically, it's a very good time to be a COBOL programmer. It has been more popular lately for computer programmers to learn C or other languages. However, COBOL, ancient though it may seem, is the language of almost all of the code that must be changed to fix the year 2000 problem. Call it COBOL programmers' day in the sun.

The potential work force problem was enough for one group to launch a Year 2000 World Wide Web page this month (http://www.year2000.com) designed to match employers with employees, called Jobs 2000. Many companies and government agencies have not yet addressed the problem, which suggests the demand will only grow.

"The year 2000 job market is heating up and will reach crisis temperature in the next three years," said Jay Franke, a research analyst at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who is also the editor of the Jobs 2000 information page.

Franke said he expects 100,000 hits a day from companies and job-seekers. It's certainly the employee's market, he said. "This class of worker will become specialized and expensive over the next few years," Franke said.

He estimates programmers, especially COBOL experts, will see their salaries jump 50 to 100 percent in the next few years. "It will be a gold rush mentality before too long," Franke said.

Another purpose of the Web page, he said, is to help serious and experienced vendors and individuals maintain a high level of quality in year 2000 work. Because the market will be so lucrative, not only for programmers but for companies that will sell solutions to other businesses, it's likely that some corporations that don't have the knowledge will try to make money off the problem, Franke said.

The opposite of this dilemma is expected in 2001 when the code is fixed. Companies must either fire or retrain and reassign the year 2000 experts. Merrow said she's looking ahead to also teach her new employees to take the next step after the year 2000 -- to fix legacy systems. However, Merrow predicts that many companies will be faced with letting half of their staff go. "Some have evoked the analogy of re-building a rocket ship while it is on its way to the moon," she said.

Year 2000 Agency Preparedness

GradesDoes the agencyIs there a yearDoes the agency haveDid the agency

have a year2000 programany cost estimates forrespond to the

2000 plan?manageryear 2000 solution?questions?

International AidAXX*X

Personnel (OPM)AXXXX

Small BusinessAXXXX

Social SecurityAXXXX


Nuclear RegulatoryBXXX




Science FoundationCXX



Environmental ProtectionDXX

General ServicesDXX

Health & Human ServicesDXX

Housing (HUD)DXX




Veterans AffairsDXX





Source: Subcommittee on Government Management, Information, and Technology, July 30, 1996

Major Findings

- Major departments are only in the initial planning stages of the year 2000 effort.

- Even the most advanced agencies have not reached the final stages of solution.

- Only six agencies have any cost estimates.

- The Department of Defense has not yet completed its inventory of computer software code which needs to be converted.

- NASA does not anticipate having a plan completed until March 1997.

- The Department of Transportation did not respond to the questions as of this date.

- The Department of Energy did not begin to address the year 2000 issue until a week after they received the subcommittee's survey.

Source: Subcommittee on Government Management, Information, and Technology, July 30, 1996

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