Smart moves: The millennium bug brings rich pickings

SCHOOL and college students with good IT skills should consider skipping university to take advantage of the desperate computer programming staff shortage, says the Hays employment agency. While a degree is important to people who want to become managers or join one of the professions, it is not relevant to employers looking for programmers in a market where demand far outstrips supply.

The Year 2000 crisis - or millennium bug - is the main factor that is driving wages in the sector sky high. Computer systems that rely on mainframes using the Cobol language may crash on 1 January 2000, unless they can be re- programmed in time. Many old programmes recognise the year only from the last two digits, and systems will interpret the year as 1900, not 2000.

A shortage of Cobol programmers will mean that 11 per cent of companies - including many large corporations - will fail to meet the year 2000 deadline for re-programming their systems, according to a recent survey by computer consultancy CAP Gemini. The problem is exacerbated by the simultaneous need for large businesses to create new software for financial planning systems that will cope with the euro currency alongside sterling.

Getting older computers - the so-called legacy systems - to work into the new century is the priority for most companies' IT departments. "Once the millennium bug is resolved most corporations will move to more modern entities," says Neil Emerson, operations director for the Hays IT employment agency. "But these legacy systems will be around for the next five years. And then it will take years to resolve the problems European Monetary Union throws up. There is a good five to 10 years for programmers to make a killing."

Mr Emerson believes that A-level students may be better to go straight into programming now, rather than forego some potentially lucrative years by going to university. "Someone with 18 months to two years' experience can earn pounds 1,800 a week in contract work," he says. "That's better than the rates you get working for McDonald's." One option is to defer university until after doing some high paid work experience.

"Once you are experienced, employers don't care a hoot whether you are a graduate or not," adds Mr Emerson. "It is only consultants who do. You can make as much in your late 20s in computing as you can in your late 30s in accountancy or law."

Jocelyn Somner, a manager with Reed Computing Personnel, is more circumspect, and says that degree courses provide a strong skill mix that will help someone to become a better programmer or project manager. "I would not like to say don't take a degree, though there may be an argument for taking it later. An IT qualification can help, but it need not be a degree. A business degree plus a technical qualification may be the best."

Ms Somner says that the IT skills shortage can be expected to last a long time, keeping wages in the sector high. "A lot of people have hung on in the industry, but will retire after the millennium. There will be a big lurch out of the market."

Reed advises people interested in an IT job to consider specialist training, which can increase earning potential. A course run by Hewlett Packard will cost about pounds 5,000 - Reed offers a 30 per cent discount - but should be quickly recovered through higher income. Hardware and software producers such as Microsoft offer other courses.

An IT expert who becomes a specialist in Oracle can expect to double their salary from pounds 40,000 to pounds 80,000, says Reed. Employment agencies recognise the importance of up-to-date training, and often suggest to applicants suitable courses they should take to improve job prospects.

One IT company, Logica, is paying course fees of thousands of pounds for students who have been carefully selected to do a four-week intensive training course at the University of East London. Each student, some of whom had no relevant IT skills before the course started, is guaranteed a pounds 17,000-a-year technical consultancy job with Logica at the end of the course. Further courses are now planned, and Logica is seeking to recruit not only young non-IT graduates, but also early retirees from the banking industry and the armed services. Among other steps Logica is taking to overcome the skills shortage is an offer to staff of a pounds 2,000 bonus if they introduce a new employee with IT skills.

A recent survey conducted by Computer Weekly magazine found that there was likely to be a consistent and gradual increase in demand over the next six years for more IT workers. But within the industry, there is likely to be a shift of workers between sectors. As the financial services industry is subject to further mergers it will employ fewer IT professionals, but the numbers employed in the retail, distribution and leisure sectors should more than compensate for this. Prospects for computer professionals have seldom looked so rosy.

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