In the US, at least, 1999 was expected to be the year of the $US100,000-per-year Cobol programmer, thanks to pent-up year 2000 demand. That's what experts and analysts had predicted and Computerworld US had reported. But just try finding a company that's actually paying these workers six-figure salaries.
"The year of the $US100,000 Cobol programmer went the same way as predictions that it would cost $US3.50 per line of code" to fix year 2000 problems, said Howard Rubin, a research fellow at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. In reality, Cobol programmers are earning between $US45,000 and $US50,000 annually, according to Rubin's salary research. Programmer/analysts with Cobol skills are earning slightly more, and managers of Cobol-related projects are earning about $US70,000 per year, he said.
Cobol salaries never reached those lofty levels for several reasons. For starters, many companies fell behind in their year 2000 work and opted for less labor-intensive remediation techniques such as windowing and encapsulation, said Capers Jones, chairman of Software Productivity Research Inc., a Burlington, Massachusetts-based software research firm. In addition, corporations managed to keep a lid on salaries by offering year 2000 programmers quarterly incentive and project completion bonuses
Debby Stagg, a year 2000 program manager at San Diego Data Processing Corp., said Cobolers in San Diego are typically receiving quarterly bonuses worth 2 percent of their $US50,000 to $US60,000 salaries ($US1000 to $US1200) plus 12 percent to 15 percent awards for completing their year 2000 projects ($US6000 to $US9000). And Cobol programmers who stayed with Union Pacific Corp. in Omaha for the entire year earned bonus money totaling $US5 per hour for every hour they worked on the year 2000 project.
Although Union Pacific's Cobol programmers did earn slightly more than Rubin's average salary figure, thanks in part to an 8 percent salary increase last year, "there were no $US100,000-a-year salaries," said Tim Brechbill, the railroad's year 2000 project manager. Most retention bonuses require Cobolers to stay with a company through the first or second quarter of 2000. By 2001, many analysts and IT executives said, softening demand for Cobolers is expected to keep salaried pay static, and the market for contract programmers should soften.
"There'll be a correction" for mainframe compensation, said John McKinley, chief technology officer at Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York. At Wawa Inc., a convenience store chain in Wawa, Pennsylvania, year 2000 project manager Dave Kelbe paid a maximum hourly rate of $US70 for contract Cobol programmers at the end of last year, when Wawa completed all code remediation.
But never did Wawa pay anywhere near $US100,000 annually for a Cobol programmer's skills, he said.
"Some of the hotter skills, like Oracle, may be getting close to $US100,000, but not Cobol," Kelbe said.
Cobol guns-for-hire have found that freelance work is lucrative. Rick Brown, a Lynnwood, Washington-based freelance programmer working on his fourth year 2000 project, for an aerospace company in the Pacific Northwest, pulled in between $US110,000 and $US120,000 last year. And that doesn't include the four weeks of vacation he negotiated at an Omaha-based credit-card company for a gig that took him through most of last year.
Still, the journeyman's life has its price. Steven Hampton, a 54-year-old independent systems consultant in Columbus, Ohio, raked in between $US120,000 and $US130,000 last year.Although that helped him buy new toys such as a 300-MHz Compaq Computer Corp. workstation and an NEC Corp. electronic planner, the long hours he has put in since going solo in 1980 "probably also cost me my marriage, since I was always out working."