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Who will bust the Y2K bug?

Most industry observers, analysts, and CIOs agree that a shortage in the information technology labor force is approaching just as the rush to fix the Year 2000 bug heats up.

3 min read
BOSTON--Most industry observers, analysts, and chief information officers agree that a shortage in the information technology labor force is approaching just as the rush to fix the Year 2000 bug heats up.

However, they differ on how to fill the void and get the job done.

At a Year 2000 conference being held here this week, company executives and millennium bug experts shared ideas about how to deal with the IT worker shortage problem and how to formulate Y2K management strategies.

Many companies have resorted to a number of alternative means to cover their IT needs because the shortage is here, and companies need to staff their Y2K projects now. IT salaries have risen considerably as companies struggle to retain the workers they have.

The millennium bug stems from decisions by programmers in the 1960s to refer to the date by using only the last two digits of a year instead of all four. Programmers continued to use that shorthand until very recently. When 00 comes up for the year 2000, many computers will view it as 1900 instead, causing widespread problems.

Patches and upgrades to new systems will resolve the bug relatively easily for businesses with packaged software, according to some observers. For many of the older, COBOL-coded mainframes and for the hard-coded software used by electronic devices like cash registers, however, diagnoses and solutions will prove much more troublesome and costly.

The Gartner Group has estimated the cost of dealing with the bug at between $300 billion and $600 billion. Although not completely driven by the Y2K bug, the federal government estimates that the nation will need more than 1 million additional IT workers by 2005.

Most companies embarking on Year 2000 projects and strapped for IT workers will look to augment internal staff with programming service providers who generally sign one year contracts. Unfortunately, the demand for Y2K conversion resources will far exceed the supply, according to at least one analyst.

"So, as companies move into the implementation phase of Year 2000 projects, it will become increasingly important as well as increasingly difficult for IT managers to retain internal programming staff and project managers," said Giga Information Group analyst Stephanie Moore, who cohosted a workshop entitled "Year 2000 Strategies from Start to Finish for Small to Midsize Companies" at the Boston conference.

She concluded that businesses will have to make concerted efforts to keep their internal IT staff onboard as the need for that staff's talents increases in the outside economy.

Over the next two years, external resources will become unavailable or prohibitively expensive for a lot of businesses. "Internal staff will be the target of desperate recruiters and services firms. In order to retain staff, IT managers should be prepared with creative compensation, bonuses, and incentive plans as well as recruitment plans...," Moore stated in her report.

Peter Poggi is the applications director for New York Power. He said he has worked to retain the IT professionals he has on staff as well as gone outside of the company to get some assistance. "I outsourced a lot of the work. Aside from the expertise an outside firm brings to the job, the knowledge of what the Year 2000 problem is all about is also there. I can also concentrate my efforts on organizing the project now that I have a firm doing the other work," he said.

If a company develops a sound Y2K project plan, the staffing needs will have to be outlined and addressed, said Prudential'sYear 2000 program manager Irene Dec, who spoke at the Boston conference.

Once it's discovered that there might not be enough staff to do the job, Bill Martorelli, of Giga Information Group, said there are many places to look for help. "A lot of companies are contracting heavily on the outside. They hire temporary employees as well as offshore companies to do the programming tasks."

Martorelli said some of the most common offshore outsourcing spots are in India and Ireland. "They have code factories that do work of certain kinds. It sometimes proves cheaper to go offshore."

However, some companies are finding relief right outside their front doors. "They are definitely not neglecting the entry level people. There are many different sources, like retirees and even the homeless. Companies are leaving no stone unturned," Martorelli said.