Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce is enlisting college students in an unusual program designed to ensure its small-business lending customers are year-2000 compliant.

In mid-July, nearly 700 community college and university students will begin analyzing small businesses' computer and technology systems-including fax machines, alarms, and pagers-for year-2000 compliance.

The detailed reports that the students produce will serve as year-2000 checklists for CIBC's small-business customers.

The program addresses the risk that a bank's loan customers might experience year-2000 difficulties that would jeopardize their ability to make payments.

A Canadian government task force recommended that banks withdraw credit from businesses that are not actively addressing the year-2000 issue.

To protect its investments in small companies, CIBC chose to support the student initiative instead.

CIBC and the government's Industry Canada division are funding the program, called year-2000 First Step. CIBC would not reveal its cost.

"This is the best way to make sure businesses understand the problem and know how to deal with it," said John Burns, vice president for projects and year-2000. The bank also writes articles, produces a Web site, and speaks on the issue.

The program is being offered first to CIBC's 300,000 small-business customers and then will be expanded to other small businesses.

To prepare for the reviews, students undergo a two-week training program with Productivity Point International Inc., a computer training and consulting firm in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The students do not need formal training in computers, just a general interest in and knowledge of technology.

Productivity Point developed a questionnaire, which students fill out with business owners or managers. Most of the small businesses use personal computers, not complex mainframe systems.

Businesses pay a minimum of $195 for a one-day survey of up to 10 computers and a report that explains the steps needed to comply, said Jeff Meyer, Productivity Point's general manager.

The report lists the software, hardware, and other technology the company owns; whether the systems are year-2000 compliant; and where they can go for year-2000 help. The students also examine the businesses' suppliers and vendors.

"It makes planning for conformity for year-2000 really easy," said Bill Scurfield, managing partner of Contact Marketing Inc., a data base marketing and call center company in Winnipeg that underwent a student review as part of the program's pilot.

Mr. Scurfield was aware of the year-2000 problem but had not yet tackled it.

"We learned we can do our internal systems and still have problems if outside suppliers don't deliver."

First Step is an expansion of the Student Connection program in which students help small businesses get connected to the Internet.

It is designed to give students technical knowledge and experience and to add to Canada's technology work force.

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