It did not take long for Joanne Coletti, 48, to find a new job after taking early retirement last year. A week after her last day with a phone company, the technology projects manager interviewed with BankBoston Corp. for a slot on its 40-member Millennium Project.

She was promptly pressed into service exterminating year-2000 bugs.

"It's the only project I've ever been on where you can't change the deadline, no matter what," she said. "It's a much greater challenge than what I was doing."

Project managers like Ms. Coletti and systems analysts qualified to tackle the problem known as Y2K are hot properties in corporate America-and nowhere more than in financial institutions and their technology consulting firms.

"The financial services sector started earlier than most other industries," said James J. Woodward, senior vice president of Cap Gemini America's TransMillennium Services. "Yet they have more left to do than anybody else."

As a result, demand continues to rise for people who can confront the year-2000 threat at banks and other financial companies, but finding qualified people is difficult.

By 1999, as many as half of an estimated three million programmers nationwide will be needed to bring the nation's computers up to speed for the calendar change, according to industry forecasts.

"The technology industry is not capable of supporting the number of positions available," said Len Adams, executive vice president and chief operating officer of New York-based KPA Group, which hires programmers to act as Y2K consultants. "There just aren't enough people out there. They can't be trained fast enough."

"When you look at demand, there is no supply," said Franklin J. Barbosa, senior vice president of the information technology practice at Skott/Edwards Consultants, a recruiting firm based in Morristown, N.J.

Banks and their competitors are responding in a variety of ways that are helping this field become one of the hottest. Experts say these professionals command a premium over ordinary technology employees.

Salaries for lower-level systems analysts often start in the $40,000- $60,000 range. Chief information officers with significant Y2K debugging responsibilities can command from $150,000 in base salary to as much as $450,000, said John Jazylow, a principal of the executive search firm Secura Burnett Partners in New York.

And compensation packages include more than straight salary. Bonuses tied to performance goals are being tossed in, as institutions try not only to retain employees but also to make sure enough people are on standby for any post-millennium glitches.

For high-level executives whose responsibilities include year-2000 issues, bonuses can equal as much as a year's salary, Mr. Jazylow said. "Most bonuses are associated with risk," he said. "It's 'how well do we do as a bank?' and 'how well do you do as an individual performer?'"

Executives leading the year-2000 charge typically find that their ballooning budgets can overshadow those of other business units, Mr. Jazylow said.

BankBoston, where Ms. Coletti works, last month began paying retention bonuses to keep programmers from taking any of the increasingly better offers. The payments, tied primarily to finishing the year-2000 job, "would make anyone stay," said George S. Best, senior technical recruiter for the banking company.

Mr. Best would not disclose details of the plan, which he said was developed after another company last year recruited seven of BankBoston's Y2K workers.

"The retention bonuses are really appealing in the interview process," Mr. Best said. One of his sources of recruits is a local employment/placement company that culls the World Wide Web for resumes matching BankBoston's requirements. "There are a number of networks you have to tap into," he said.

Another way to attract technical talent is simply to offer higher salaries. Though it has largely completed its year-2000 conversion, Boston Mutual Life Insurance Co. boosted the salaries of most of its 15 programmers this year to keep the team intact.

"You look at the Boston Globe, and there are 82 pages of classifieds just for technical people," said Vincent J. Lioce, the insurer's vice president of information systems and services. He said he has two staff vacancies he cannot fill and added, "I don't see any relief until the end of 1999."

Though Boston Mutual's entry-level programmer salaries are not as high as those many companies offer for debugging work, Mr. Lioce is not too worried about defections for more money. "I don't think any of them want to do year-2000 any more," he said.

Some recruiters are turning to the ranks of the retired.

SeniorStaff of Campbell, Calif., which keeps a national data bank of 50- and-older computer professionals for Y2K work, has seen employers give jobs to about 100 people on its list. Their age works to their advantage because they worked in the COBOL programming language, which is what needs repairing for 2000, said SeniorStaff chief executive officer William S. Payson.

"Anybody working on COBOL then is over 50 today," Mr. Payson said. He said he is surprised more companies have not gone after the estimated 10,000 older techies in his data base. (See related article on page 4.)

Many banks, meanwhile, have outsourced the debugging work to consulting firms, off-loading the recruiting burden. But even these firms, which often pay better than their clients, are coming up dry.

"We have far more opportunities than we have people," said Bruce F. Webster, chief technical officer for Dallas-based Object Systems Group, a consultant to Fannie Mae's Y2K team in Washington.

KPA Group's Mr. Adams, like many employers and employment agencies, is secretive about recruiting strategies. He acknowledged he has recently turned to universities in China and India for programmers. That approach runs up against immigration rules that limit the influx of highly skilled workers to 65,000 a year. This year, the quota limit may be reached by June, according to the Cato Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies.

Rather than import workers, Command Systems of Farmington, Conn., employs them in their homeland. The technology company operates a five- story, 20,000-square-foot facility in Bangalore, India, where 165 workers spend most of their time on year-2000 issues for U.S. financial services companies. Indian programmers are well-paid by local standards but earn one-quarter of what U.S. programmers typically cost, said Edward G. Cupota, Command Systems' president. And "they do a magnificent job," he said.

The employment picture-from the recruiters' point of view-grows more gloomy every day.

"If you think it's bad now, just wait until later this year," warned Mr. Jazylow of Secura Burnett Partners. Institutions that either put off addressing the problem or have encountered bigger jobs than they expected will reenter the Y2K employment bazaar with renewed vigor, he said.

And there will continue to be temptations for programmers to jump ship.

BankBoston's Ms. Coletti said she and her co-workers hear from headhunters all the time, but she said she expects to remain a bank employee past Jan. 1, 2000.

"It can be stressful," she said. "But stress is good."

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