Y2K not employing retired programmers

Experts who thought the Year 2000 technology problem would pull legions of Cobol programmers out of retirement to fix the bug now say fewer retirees than expected have been hired to handle the millennium glitch.

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Experts who thought the Year 2000 technology problem would pull legions of Cobol programmers out of retirement to fix the bug now say fewer retirees than expected have been hired to handle the millennium glitch.

Since many companies are still finishing repairs, hard numbers on Y2K hiring trends have yet to be assembled. But observers say businesses haven't dipped into the deep pool of retired code-crunchers as often as expected. In fact, both analysts and industry watchers report that overall, big businesses have rarely strayed outside of their internal labor pools for Y2K help.

"We've seen many companies do much more work on this issue with internal staff than [was] originally thought earlier on," said Bob Cohen, vice president ofBack to Year 2000 Index Page communications at the Information Technology Association of America, a trade association representing the technology industry.

Lou Marcoccio, an analyst at Gartner Group, said previous research that Gartner had done showed demand for retired IT professionals across the board for Y2K work. Program administrators and managers as well as programmers were expected to be tapped for Y2K work.

Now, Marcoccio said organizations that "traditionally had trouble financing and retaining IT professionals...in the government, education, and healthcare industries" were recruiting retirees with experience in Cobol and other technologies. The U.S. government, for instance, sent out a letter to recent government retirees asking for voluntary help to work on Y2K issues. However, Marcoccio said, most industries did not seek Y2K assistance from retirees.

Just ask Larry Larsen, an older programmer who last year worked for a consultant company that did Y2K work specifically for small businesses. The company is now out of business and Larsen is building Web sites and working as a consultant for senior citizens looking to get online. Y2K isn't in the picture.

"We found that small businesses weren't interested," said Larsen. "They are either ignoring the problem or not interested in doing the Y2K work until it happens. A lot of companies decided to just upgrade."

Larsen is now doing consultant work for a company called SeniorSurfers which goes to seniors' homes to help them set up home computers and get online.

On the whole, the majority of corporate brass decided against expanding their IT budgets for Y2K, Marcoccio said. When IT managers realized this, they handled their Year 2000 conversion work internally, he said.

Another reason for not hiring outside help "was most of the expertise on business processes and applications existed inside of the company," Marcoccio said.

Marcoccio said the same trend toward using internal staff to fix Y2K problems has also tempered the demand for technology consultants specializing in Y2K. While in 1996 and 1997 many information technology consultants and tool makers thought Y2K would bring a high demand for their services "this never happened," said Marcoccio. "Many companies ended up doing the work internally. In fact, we found that only 3 percent of Y2K work was done by outside consultants."

As earlier reported, many observers, including senior citizen advocates, thought the shortage of IT workers alone would cause many companies to seek out the expertise and flexible schedules of retirees. Add on the deadlines for Y2K conversion, and many thought it was a given.

But in fact, "there hasn't been a large number of retirees coming back into the work force," Cohen said.

Representative of the lack of interest in senior programmers is Senior Staff, a Campbell, California-based company that was created to fill this need. The company estimates there are approximately 200,000 retired "techies" available to work.

"Y2K has been a disappointment," said Senior Staff's CEO William Payson. "We have about 16,000 vintage techies--that's what we call them now--in our database."

Senior Staff is an information data bank, not an employment agency or placement firm, providing contacts sorted by both specialty and skill level, free of charge. For a modest fee, the company will provide employer contacts.

Last year, Payson was counting on small businesses to be the source of work for his "vintage techies," because he believed smaller enterprises with tighter budgets would look to his cheaper workforce to do the Y2K work. That never happened.

Payson has now converted and renamed his online database service from Senior Staff 2000 to Senior Techs, to open up more possibilities for his vintage workers and to handle work after the year 2000.

The Year 2000 problem, also known as the millennium bug, stems from an old programming shortcut that used only the last two digits of the year. Many computers now must be modified, or they may mistake the year 2000 for the year 1900 and may not be able to function at all.