The end is nigh for Y2K consultants

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By Jessie Stones

In one of the third-floor computer labs in the Rogers Communications Centre, Hin Jang leans back in his chair, pausing his work on a Pokemon program to talk about the future. Surrounded by classmates, many of whom will be competing for the same jobs when he graduates this spring, he is relaxed and confident about what he’s up against in the working world.

One thing that hasn’t crossed his mind is that there will be a decrease in employment for Y2K specialists and programmers once the crisis has passed.

“I’m graduating in April, I’ll get a job in May. In five years I’ll be making $80,000 a year,” he says. “Yeah, that’s a good plan.”

Jang, 27, is a smooth-talking Ryerson computer science student. He isn’t worried about finding a job when he graduates, even though he will enter the workforce in graphics software development at a time when the demand for employment could outweigh the demand for employees.

The Y2K computer bug crisis has created a need for people skilled in the languages necessary to upgrade older systems. This has translated into hundreds of jobs with a new title: Y2K consultant.

People are making large sums of money from the crisis, which originated at the hands of computer programmers in the ’70s and ’80s as a way to save hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide.

Because computer’s memory was so valuable, programs were designed to be as short as possible. To save money, years were identified by two digits instead of four. The programmers believed the short cuts would be modified by the time the years 2000 rolled around.

They weren’t, and in the early 1990s, internationally acclaimed computer expert Peter de Jager, who lives in Brampton, recognized the gravity of the problem. He went on a worldwide crusade to educate businesses about problems that could arise if they didn’t immediately do something to modify their software to handle the rollover to the year 2000. The first Y2K consultant was born, and from then they started multiplying.

Solving the Y2K bug is a lucrative business. The City of Toronto budgeted $150-million to upgrade its departments, with an additional $25-million for agencies, boards and commissions such as the TTC and police force. Bell Canada has spent roughly $350-million nationwide to ready its systems. Even Ryerson has allotted $5000,000 of its pension plan overflow to Y2K contingency plans, according to Linda Grayson, v.p. administration and student affairs.

There’s a little joke in the computer world that the closer we get to the year 2000, the higher a consultant’s hourly rate.

Although Jang says he doesn’t believe anybody was hired into the field to work solely on the Y2K problem, Imitiaz Atcha, an information technology consultant who works for Toronto-based CSI Consulting, says the demand for people like him increased 25 to 40 per cent around 1995. “It depended on the background of the consultant, what programs they were experienced in. But a big, big increased.”

Atcha’s employer hooks freelance consultants up with companies like the Insurance Information Centre of Canada, Bell Sygma, and IBM.

Consultants audit software for known Y2K problems and test systems. They run a program they either wrote or bought to test all of a business’ hardware and scan software for date-related functions. The program reports all possible problems, then a decision is made on how to repair them.

At the beginning of the consulting boom, many programmers left salaried positions to work on a freelance contract basis. Leaving jobs that paid from $50,000 to $60,000 with benefits may sound crazy, but setting up as a freelance consultant enabled programmers to charge upwards of $50 an hour, for a yearly gross of more than 100,000 plus expenses.

But the market for mainframe and network programs, which are the older languages and programs in which Y2K consultants specialize, is slowly waning.

Eric Sellers, a Ryerson graduate and Internet programmer since 1993 at the CBC’s Web site, www.cbc.ca, says the profession is already obsolete. “It’s pretty much too late for businesses to start modifying their systems, since their applications are probably already projecting dates into 2000. Most large businesses have already completed their upgrades or bought new computers altogether.”

Some consultants will be making their entire salary on New Year’s Eve, making sure nothing goes wrong with computer systems, Atcha says, adding those contracts can pay up to $50,000 for one night. “Most businesses just want someone there to set up new computer systems. They’re not looking to change anything, just to make sure nothing goes wrong.”

Not many consultants coming out of three- or four-year contracts have jobs lined up in their field for after New Year’s. They’re mostly experienced with older languages that were used to program software in the ’70s and ’80s. While this knowledge was necessary to decode and reprogram computers for the Y2K bug, businesses are no longer requesting programmers with this kind of expertise.

This could potentially become a field with an unusually high rate of unemployment. Joe Stigler, a Toronto consultant at Network Support Services, says his job will return to what it was before Y2K rush, which is support for businesses with networked computers. “We’ll just keep doing what we’ve always done. We just won’t be making as much money.”

Other consultants may not be as lucky. Atcha says many of the programmers he works with may have to apply for administrative positions or return to school to upgrade their skills. So in the next few years he projects the market will be flooded with computer programmers competing for fewer jobs than the field has offered in years.

If Hin Jang had been offered a Y2K consulting contract four years ago, he would have made sure he had a secure position after Jan. 1, 2000. Those who didn’t, he says, “were seduced by money. They showed no ambition or foresight.”

But he doesn’t see the job market as a challenge: “It’s a large enough playing field for everybody.”

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