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Cobol programmers back in demand

Cobol programmers--whose skills had been labeled obsolete--are back in force thanks to the year 2000 bug afflicting many large corporations.

John Thomas Flynn, CIO for the State of California, was driving down Route 80 this week when he spied a bumper sticker on a passing car. For Flynn, that bumper sticker said it all: "Cobol Programmers--We're back. We're mad as hell."

Many of these computer programmers, once valued as experts with the language that made mainframe business applications possible, have either been put out to pasture or pushed to retrain in the languages that now drive the client-server world.

But now a problem has arisen that has caused many companies to come crawling back to the once-displaced Cobol programmers: the year 2000 bug.

The problem stems from the fact that most mainframe application software was written using a two-digit format that entered, for example, 1996 as 96. When the year 2000 kicks in, the applications will roll over the last two digits, assuming that it's the year 1900 and wrecking havoc with the business programs on which most large companies still depend.

This glitch means that businesses must reprogram all of their old mainframe software and that the demand for Cobol programmers is on the rise.

That need for Cobol programmers will only increase as the next millennium nears, especially for large organizations with huge legacy systems, Flynn said.

"We're fortunate to still have many of those skills remaining within our organization, but there will be keen competition for those folks," Flynn said. It will be hard to find new programmers just out of college who can fit the bill.

"In the past, we could get Cobol programmers out of technical schools and colleges who had a working knowledge of the language," said Gary Keller, president of the Association of Information Technology Professionals. "But today, it's less likely to find these students because the schools are dropping Cobol as a language."

This means fatter paychecks for experienced Cobol programmers. "Cobol programmers can expect two to three times the salary they were making three years ago. That's because companies were shifting to client-server programs and letting their Cobol people go. Many of them became consultants or went into retirement. But now they're coming back to companies at a higher wage," said Waverly Deutsch, computer strategy service director for market research firm Forrester Research.

Deutsch, who has conducted a study on the impact of the year 2000 issue, said Cobol programmers can now expect to earn an annual salary of between $60,000 to $120,000. Not bad for programmers whose skills were dismissed as obsolete a couple of years ago.

A lot of companies still have Cobol programmers, of course, although they may have been reassigned to other projects in the past few years.

"We're finding we have an increased need for Cobol programmers, but it's being met by our current staff who were cross-trained in client-server programs," said Thomas Conarty, information technology director for Bethlehem Steel. His company began tapping the knowledge of their former Cobol programmers a year ago to address the millennium bug.

These programmers who received cross-training are in the best of all possible worlds, as they are skilled in both new and old languages. When the year 2000 comes and goes, they'll be able to continue with client-server projects without any interruption to their careers.

Programmers who still know only Cobol, however, have only a brief respite from the specter of unemployment. "This is a one-time situation. It's not going to be a resurrection of the entire field," said Bruce Hall, research director for the Gartner Group, a computer consultancy. "You can't find Cobol courses in colleges anymore, and that's indicative of its need. The year 2000 is a one-time need."