focus on: Employment Outlook '99

The past 12 to 15 months has seen a flurry of hiring activity surrounding Y2K programming initiatives. Consulting firms were hired, individuals contracted, and employees added to make sure January 1, 2000 was not a catastrophic day. However, this activity was built around what happens on that one day; after that, life goes on and businesses have other issues to deal with. As Y2K issues come to a close, companies and programmers need to look to the future.

Obviously being on a Y2K project on Jan. 1, 2000 is not exactly job security. Even now, many companies are completing or have completed the bulk of their Y2K reprogramming. Nate Viall and Associates (Des Moines, Iowa) polled companies last fall on Y2K issues and found that 25 percent of the companies reported that they were less than 50 percent completed, today that figure is down to four percent, and a third are reporting being done or in final testing. However, don’t expect a horde of AS/400 candidates to come knocking on your door. The Y2K projects have simply caused existing or planned projects to be put on the back burner. Existing staff will tackle these projects once the Y2K crisis is over. The only exceptions may be consultants, especially foreign consultants that moved to the US specifically to work on Y2K solutions; these foreign consultants are looking for new projects so they can remain here.

Expect a return to “normal” hiring conditions. But what is normal? Even before the Y2K rush, qualified, competent OS/400 and RPG professionals were in demand. Y2K just exacerbated an already tight situation. Additionally, attrition through age or opportunities outside programming continues to reduce the talent pool. Jack Moore, owner of the AS/400 specialized recruiting firm, Capital Data (Palm Harbor, Fla.) says, “In permanent placements we have seen continuing growth, that has not slowed down one bit. In fact, there has never been a better time to be an IBM AS/400 professional.” With a limited supply of qualified people and an expanding number of AS/400 systems being deployed, employment opportunities in the AS/400 market are expected to continue to be strong. Moore says, “IBM expects to sell 70 to 80 thousand AS/400s in 1999. Supply has never caught up with the demand for employees who can program on the AS/400.”

No Help From Colleges

The number of students graduating with training pertinent to AS/400 continues to decline. College students are encouraged to be on the cutting edge, not part of the foundation. The students want to learn the newest and highest profile languages in order to work on the jazziest applications. Java, HTML, Visual Basic, even C++ are stressed above RPG and Cobol. This means that each year fewer new programmers leave school with the skills needed in the AS/400 environment. The AS/400 is viewed as “old” technology, yet has consistently been one of the most reliable, stable, and powerful platforms for maintaining databases. The AS/400 is now in the legacy stage and, barring any phenomenal changes in the industry, it should remain a viable computing platform.

It used to be that only Fortune 1000 companies actively recruited the best and brightest students on campus. That is changing as smaller companies realize the benefits of hiring before graduation. Now you can find local corporations recruiting right alongside national ones, often being able to attract good student candidates on the basis of location and visibility within the company.

Even with the lack of college classes in AS/400 technology, hiring students can still work and is a means of keeping salary costs down. Once hired, IBM’s AS/400 University can be used to train these new employees in AS/400 technology to augment the Java, Windows, UNIX and other skills they learned at school. This can quickly make the new employee an asset as you venture into new projects after Y2K.

Keeping Employees

With a limited supply of competent skilled AS/400 programmers, many organizations often find themselves being raided as other organizations need help. A major concern in IT departments is employee retention and how to handle these raids. Jack Moore sees a need for companies to be more proactive in retaining valued employees. Moore says, “Most companies are reactive when it comes to employee retention. We are seeing more and more counter offers than ever before, but counter offers are usually not that effective if the employee has already considered moving on.” Kim McCurdy, Assistant VP of IS for Enterprise Rent-a-Car in St. Louis also thinks that keeping employees happy precludes them from looking for or considering outside offers. McCurdy says, “We are located in a nice part of the city that is convenient to our employees. We also try to maintain a pleasant, safe work environment with realistic work hours, professional treatment of our employees, opportunity for promotion, training is available and our compensation is competitive. Our size is also an advantage to someone who wants to see themselves grow and develop as a professional.”

As old projects are taken off the back burner and new projects are launched, the need for stable employees increases. Not just in the financial aspect of having to match salary requests, but also in the production aspect. It takes time to find, hire, train, and familiarize a new employee with your company’s operation. Thus, new employees create lost production time as compared to having a current programmer take on the new project.

Be proactive

Don’t wait for the outside offer to come along before offering greater compensation. If employees feel they are being treated fairly, there will be no need for them to look elsewhere.

Provide incentives

Increased vacation time, more discretionary time

Performance commitment

Provide bonuses or time off if goals are met

Good working environment

Location, conditions and flexibility of work hours

Training opportunities

Investing in people makes them feel wanted and valued. Also as the employee becomes a greater asset to your company, you can justify greater compensation.

What’s Next

The two most common projects organizations expect to tackle are ERP and e-commerce. For some companies ERP implementations may have been put on hold, for others new Y2K compliant programs will need to be made to work with existing applications. In any case, the need for AS/400 professionals is not likely to decrease. As companies start e-commerce initiatives, additional PC related programming skills need to be added to your IS department.

Another hot area according to Capital Data’s Jack Moore will be data warehousing. The ability to assemble, maintain, and retrieve data from throughout the enterprise has become a priority for many organizations. Moore says, “Probably the biggest thing, the trend that we are seeing in the past six to eight months, is for data warehousing talent. Companies may not know the specific skills needed, they just want some who has worked on data warehousing.”

Skills Needed

Multiple platform knowledge, not just exposure, will be a plus for programmers and companies as well. Enterprise’s McCurdy says, “Anyone who has well rounded skills and has a solid command of their technical base, seasoned with even just two years of consistent application of their field, are considered attractive candidates.” Kevin Rosenberg of BridgeGate LLC (Irvine, Calif.) says, “The IBM AS/400 or midrange professional needs to be malleable, they need to realize that no longer is OS/400 and RPG the be all and end all of midrange technology, but what is open about the midrange technology, and how does the midrange technology integrate as an integral component of the enterprise solution.”

As the AS/400 community moves to a more open and heterogeneous model, those individuals with cross platform, multiple operating system programming skills in non AS/400 technologies, like Visual Basic, client server, C++, GUI and object-oriented development skills, will be in demand. UNIX, Windows, Java, Lotus, and even Linux skills can make the difference in a hiring decision.

Business knowledge will also be a factor in hiring programmers. Being able to develop applications that readily relate to real world business is key. The ability to create code that is readable and can be easily modified by other programmers is another factor considered by employers. Rich Wright, Director of IT for Hazelwood Farms Bakeries, Inc. (Hazelwood, Mo.) says, “In addition to your technical knowledge, RPG, Cobol, ODBC and so on, the second thing to work on is your business knowledge; knowing how an application functions, how it flows. For example, if you have been working on a J.D. Edwards Y2K solution, play up your knowledge of the J.D. Edwards applications.”


Programmers currently working as consultants on Y2K may have difficulty securing positions if they wait too long. The Y2K consultant filled a vital, but short-term need and should start looking for a new position now. Capital Data’s Jack Moore says, “Don’t wait to make a change, the demand for qualified AS/400 professionals is there. Most of our placements come from people who are working. It is rare to find an AS/400 programmer out of work.” Waiting until the end of the year will mean having to compete with all the other “consultants” and could limit compensation. BridgeGate’s Kevin Rosenberg says, “ERP, or custom development of a canned ERP application is still a very viable market, however, it will be a somewhat stagnant market through the fist quarter of the year 2000.”

As reassignment and personnel re-positioning take place, hiring will be sparse during the first quarter of 2000. Going into the second quarter look for more openings as year end issues are closed, new projects begin to take shape and conditions return to “normal”. There will even be some limited Y2K expertise needed as not every facet of an ERP deployment will be fixed by every company involved with ERP.

IBM has a strong e-commerce initiative and you should expect the AS/400 to be a big part of it. As a result long term prospects for AS/400 programmers continue to be good, but the better paid positions will involve integrating the AS/400 into heterogeneous environments. It makes sense to seek training outside OS/400 & RPG as systems integrator positions will become a part of AS/400 world.