Integrators shore up work forces for Year 2000 projects

With the deadline looming for federal agencies to identify and fix Year 2000 software glitches, integrators, like the agencies, are stepping up efforts to find qualified people to do the work, even if it means turning to temporary-employment agencies.

While contractors report that most work is just beginning, the pressure is building. By March 1999 agencies are expected to have fixed, tested and reinstalled programs that, using two-digit date formats, are unable to distinguish a 2000 date from 1900, which could corrupt data or crash systems altogether.

According to Mary Dale, national account manager with Unisys Corp.'s Federal Systems Division, it is standard business practice for vendors to use consulting firms to supplement personnel shortages. She also said her company has tapped these firms to complement its own staff, which is engaged in federal agency Year 2000 work.

The Year 2000 fix presents a unique challenge for vendors—- a challenge that only these firms can fill, Dale said. A Year 2000 project "requires that you work in a fast cycle, with a large number of personnel working with an exact skillset, working in a required time frame at a specific location. Using temporary agencies is an efficient way of getting the skilled people you need," she said.

The scarcity of manpower makes it difficult for agencies to get a vendors' best programmers under contract. Federal agencies "will not be able to pay what commercial organizations can pay," said Nancy Peters, vice president for CACI Inc. and chairwoman of the Information Technology Association of America. "Federal government agencies will have to settle for less expensive and less experienced programmers," Peters said.

"We should have the best Year 2000 programmers working on critical functions that the federal government provides, [but] now agencies are faced with scraping the bottom of the barrel," she said.

Neal Grunstra, president of MindBank, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting group that has a database of 30,000 free-lance consultants, said Year 2000 programmers generally earn $40 to $60 an hour. "That can make a big difference, particularly for programmers in older languages that otherwise are not in demand." Cobol programmers, for example, might be earning $5 to $10 per hour or less, he said. The Year 2000 problem has created a huge demand, according to MindBank. "When we get calls from vendors working on Year 2000 projects with the government or in commercial industry, the calls are more a case of, 'I could use 20 or 30 people,' " Gunstra said. "That's what vendors require, and the [Year 2000] problem is only going to move farther up the list of priorities for government agencies," Grunstra said.

RHI Consulting, which provides temporary labor to contractors, gets six to 10 calls a week from vendors that need programmers to work on federal Year 2000 projects, said Don Ramsey, the Washington metropolitan-area sales manager for RHI.

Ramsey said he noticed an increase in demand for skilled Year 2000 programmers last September and said the requests for skills runs the gamut of phases associated with Year 2000 fixes. "Vendors want people who can work on the assessment, renovation, testing and implementation; they want people who can work on every aspect of the [Year 2000] process," Ramsey said.

Peter Himmelberger, director of Year 2000 programs at GTE's Information Systems Division, has also noticed an increasing demand for personnel in this area. "There's a definite shortfall in skills to fix the government's Year 2000 problems," Himmelberger said.

While GTE currently is not experiencing a Year 2000 labor shortage, Himmelberger said that may change when agencies finish taking inventory and fixing software and turn to contractors to begin testing and validating their systems. To stave off a shortfall, "we are looking for partners that can provide the skills that we need, and we are going through resumes so we can build up a pool of talent," Himmelberger said.

He also said his company will provide training to boost the number of people who can fulfill the job requirements needed on Year 2000 contracts. "We are forecasting and planning on how we will meet those labor needs and not discounting that we will also need to find additional labor to help," Himmelberger said.

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