Retired programmers lured back by Y2K work

When Thomas Copfler retired from his job as a computer specialist with the National Finance Center (NFC) in New Orleans six months ago, he planned to build a house on 10 acres of land that he had bought in Amite City, La., and to grow blueberries and day lilies.

The old timber land is littered with debris from felled trees that need to be hauled away, and Copfler, 57, wants to put in a pond. "I guess at my age I can't do as much physically as I thought I could," he said. "It became clear I would have to either cut back on what I was going to do or put out some money to get it cleared.''

Although Copfler's wife, Sandy, a nurse, is still working full time, the extra money the project required was not part of their financial plan. So Copfler decided to go back to work. Last month, Copfler became one of the first federal retirees rehired by their former employers to help ensure agency computer systems will read 21st century dates correctly.

The agency wooed Copfler back under a 2-month-old Office of Personnel Management policy that allows retirees to return for Year 2000-related work at their old salaries without having their pensions reduced. In an interview a few days before starting his new job, Copfler said his $71,000 salary, along with his full pension, is a better deal than he was offered by Lockheed Martin Corp. to do similar work as a contractor. "They made me an offer about $10 an hour less than I had been making,'' he said.

For the NFC, which processes paychecks for 450,000 government employees and keeps track of $60 billion worth of employee retirement savings through the federal Thrift Savings Plan, Copfler was a good catch.

"I worked with the fellow for 26 years,'' said Edgar McManus, who is running the Year 2000 repair effort for the agency. "He's built many of our applications, he has a proven track record, and he's an excellent programmer.''

With 570 days left until computer date clocks click to "00,'' retired programmers and information systems managers are weapons that agencies are trying to deploy against the millennium time bomb. As of last month, at least eight agencies, including the departments of Agriculture, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, Interior and State, the General Services Administration and the Internal Revenue Service, were seeking federal retirees to fill at least 365 positions, according to OPM and agency data.

John Yost, project director for century date change with the IRS, said his agency has invited 200 recent retirees to apply for a few dozen temporary positions. "If we bring back former IRS employees, they know our management structure, the programming life cycle we follow, the techniques we use," he said. "We're bringing people on board that don't need to be trained and brought up to speed."

Being able to offer retirees their full salaries "apparently is a major incentive" to attract people back to work, Yost said. But to some retired federal workers, who mainly have gone to work for contractors, money is not the only— and not necessarily the primary— reason they are back on the clock.

William Payson runs The Senior Staff, an online job bank for retirees based in San Jose, Calif., that has 10,000 resumes from people with Cobol programming and related skills. They have trouble finding jobs, he said, because they want to work part time and telecommute, and most employers want them to work full time, on site. "Only one-third of the people in our databank are looking for jobs because they want the money,'' Payson said. "They're either bored or they want to be useful, or they think it's patriotic to work on Y2K, or their spouse wants them out of the house."

"If I were 55, I'd probably go back to working full time," said Bill Hammack, 68, who until recently was a part-time contractor at the Department of Veterans Affairs' Austin Automation Center. "I'm not inclined right now to make as much money."

Hammack had spent 19 years as a programmer and manager at the facility, working on payroll and medical records systems, when he retired in 1985. He did not think about going back to work for seven years, until a former supervisor suggested he apply to work for Computer Data Systems Inc., which the agency had hired to update some software written in Assembler, a programming language that pre-dates Cobol.

Federal retirees offer agencies more than their technical expertise. Their familiarity with how government operates helps them build rapport with current agency staff, who view post-careerists as being among their own. Contractors, particularly, report that having retirees on their teams creates closer cooperation between them and their customers and helps get the job done faster.

Tom Avey, who became deputy director of OAO Corp.'s Millennium Solutions Center in February after completing 20 years with the Marine Corps, said that when agency customers learn that a contractor has federal experience, they "take it for granted" that the contractor understands their problem. On the job, Avey said, "I don't know if I really noticed much of a change" from his former position overseeing Year 2000 upgrades for the Marines, "other than I wasn't wearing a uniform every day, I was wearing a suit. I felt I was still providing support to the government," the former Marine major said. "I've always been service-oriented."

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