AS/400 Employment Outlook 2000

This year’s demand for AS/400 staff remains steady, but new challenges require rethinking and realignment of skills. Two major changes are taking place in the AS/400 employment outlook. First is the trend toward hiring permanent staff rather than independent consultants or freelance programmers. Second is the need for additional skills. The employment outlook for AS/400 professionals varies; some companies are still looking for basic skills, but most seek proficiency in the latest e-business technologies. To remain competitive, job seekers will now find it necessary to enhance their education or consider relocation.

Shifting Needs

Demand is shifting from contract work to permanent staffing. This staffing shift is due partly to a favorable economic climate that allows IT managers to increase staff size based on future needs rather than just quick-fix hiring to put out fires. E-business is the future and AS/400 IT departments need competent, qualified people with the knowledge and expertise to build e-business solutions.

Companies need AS/400 professionals with training and/or experience in ERP applications, client/server, connectivity, LAN, Web site development and other Web related skills. Web-based specialty staffing firm kforce.com’s Metro NY regional VP Joe Eiseman says, “Our clients need someone who has client/server development and PC-based skills with the ability to interface to the AS/400 platform. The other demand is for individuals who are familiar with ERP packages from the user perspective and have the system savvy to be able to use the ERP packages to manipulate data.”

Someone who has only AS/400 programming skills will have a marketability problem states Greg Bell, business unit director for kforce.com in Indianapolis. “Our customers are looking for a way to connect the old legacy systems with the Web for e-commerce solutions. The people that can do that will be a hot ticket.”

According to Jack Moore, president of Tampa-based Capital Data, a firm that specializes in AS/400 and emerging technology staffing, AS/400 professionals seem to be getting the message. “You see those who are getting additional education focusing on the visual, object oriented languages and Internet related technology,” he says.

Positions are also available for jobs not involving e-business. These positions center on providing support services rather than retooling applications. Sterling Group, an Orange County, Calif.-based IT search and placement firm, president Ron Henry says, “Most of the midrange companies now are satisfied with their packaged software and as a result do not need the in-house staff to support their systems as much as they used to.”

As AS/400 programmers shift their efforts to e-commerce and Web solutions, however, there are fewer AS/400 programmers available to maintain existing programs. This shift means that programmers who choose not to expand their knowledge can still find AS/400 openings, but these openings do not pay as well and may require relocation.

Getting The Right Skill Mix

Graduating college students may have Internet training, but lack AS/400 skills. IT training organizations such as DataTrain and IBM University are trying to fill the void by making AS/400-specific training available. Capital Data’s Moore says, “AS/400 education appears to be on the rise. There are more companies offering AS/400 education; these are private enterprises that are filling a need that the colleges and universities are not attending to.” Even so, the employment prospect of an inexperienced AS/400 programmer with Internet skills does not match the marketability of a seasoned hands-on AS/400 programmer who has been trained in e-business technologies.

Training current employees familiar with company policies, practices and protocols in the hottest new applications and subjects is a double-edged sword. Once provided with the skills necessary for making the move into e-business, the newly trained people become attractive to other companies. It is always a challenge to keep good people, so there is a need to determine how to compensate more valuable employees and keep turnover in check.

Not every AS/400 position needs to be cross-trained in development languages such as Java, and HTML. Some are better served concentrating on a specific type of application. Ron Henry with Sterling Group says, “You need to go either application or systems; if application, focus on the business side of ERP systems, for example, not so much being dedicated to one particular product. On the systems side, the more you learn about the communication between pieces of equipment and connectivity of LAN to the AS/400 the more marketable you will be.”

Outside Help

No one person will meet all the programming demands of e-business projects. Meeting that demand will require assembling a team of programmers where each member is familiar with the AS/400 and a specific aspect of e-business, from database management through Web page design. Not every organization has the time or inclination to recruit new employees or retrain its existing AS/400 staff. One way to get an e-business Web site up and running quickly is to enlist the services of a third-party AS/400 support organization or an ASP (application service provider). These companies supply an e-business solution without the need for staff, planning and capital investment. For many organizations this may prove to be the best route.

Brea, Calif.-based RyTE Consulting hires AS/400 programmers to develop dynamic Web sites for its customers. RyTE brings together communications, systems, programming and operations personnel to form a development team. Principal consultant Ed Liou says, “We are focusing on e-business projects using the AS/400 as a Web server. We look for people who are not limiting themselves to RPG. They need to have an understanding of HTML and SQL.”

Last year’s Y2K effort kept a great number of consultants working, but a high rate of employment for consultants is not the case this year. In fact, many consultants are considering permanent positions. The allure of being an independent consultant is no longer as strong and many permanent AS/400 employees prefer to remain in their current positions.

kforce.com’s Bell says, “A consulting job might pay more, but there is more risk. People are shying away from consulting because of that risk.” As outside consulting opportunities become less attractive, employee retention becomes easier, particularly if employees are given the added incentive of learning e-business applications and languages.

 Regional Considerations

Location has a strong influence on the demand for AS/400 skills. The ideal candidate may not be locally available. Relocation may play large part in meeting staffing needs and demand for AS/400 professionals can vary regionally.According to these comments from IT recruiters, the West Coast AS/400 market is soft, while the Southeast is strong:

West Coast

“In my sixteen years in this business I have never seen it this soft.“ -- Sterling Group's Ron Henry

New York metro

“Things seem to have softened a bit.” -- Joe Eiseman of kforce.com

Midwest

“Demand is still up but it is taking longer to fill positions than last year.” -- Greg Bell of kforce.com

Southeast

“It seems to be a strong market for an AS/400 candidate. There is still a tremendous demand for AS/400 talent on the permanent side, not as consultants. Our client’s are looking for people with RPG development skills.” -- Jack Moore of Capital Data

 

One reason it may be harder to hire qualified AS/400 professionals in the Southeast is that salaries are perceived as being too low. Salaries, like housing and cost of living, fluctuate around the country, with some areas commanding higher levels of compensation. Based on housing, food, insurance and clothing costs, a programmer in Boston, Mass. needs more money than one in Atlanta, Ga., Charleston, S.C., or Tampa, Fla. On the other hand, the same salary earned in Boston buys much more in the Southeast. (See sidebar)

Summary

Last year’s concentration on Y2K remediation is a distant memory as programmers change their focus to e-business solutions. The AS/400’s reputation for reliability continues to make it a prime choice for maintaining and processing data related to e-business. The challenge facing AS/400 hiring managers is how to attract professionals that can make everything work together, remain reliable and keep the information secure. This is quite a change from simply finding a programmer that can tailor an application to fit a company’s need. Cross platform data reliability is just the beginning of the adventure; global commerce issues need to be addressed, as do partner, supplier and vendor connectivity. Setting limits on information availability, accessibility and manipulation are part of the new challenge faced by AS/400 professionals.

Overall it is still a good time to be an AS/400 professional. While basic RPG skills are still needed, the AS/400 market is expanding to require HTML, Java, ERP applications, C++ and Web design skills. The people with these additional skills will command higher salaries and those who wish to further their education in e-business find that companies are willing to support their efforts. Sterling Group’s Ron Henry says, “I have had people willing to move laterally dollar-wise for the opportunity to work with Java.”

Dan Hubley is a St. Augustine, Fla.-based freelance writer and career coach. dhubley@aug.com.

Related Editorial:

  • MIDRANGE Systems 2000 Salary Survey
  • Employment Outlook 1999

    Related Information:

  • Phoenix Resources AS/400 Jobs Page (new window)