UM seeks to nurture fixers for Y2K crisis Fellowship program would offer enrollees a free education

March 05, 1998|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Consider it a digital call to arms.

A battle without blood or bullets that can nevertheless leave casualties.

A war whose soldiers can get a free education via the "TI Bill" (technology information).

The University System of Maryland has proposed a "Year 2000 Fellowship Program" that would draft college students to help major companies lick the so-called Year 2000 crisis, a flaw that will have many computers reading the year 2000 as 1900 because their software was designed to record years by their last two digits only.

Though common wisdom has the crisis reaching its cyber-peak after midnight Dec. 31, 1999, it actually will strike much earlier since many computer systems for planning or forecasting peer into the future.

Some experts predict that the financial markets could crash and that many businesses could ultimately fail because of this problem, which some estimate will take $600 billion to eradicate.

Two big obstacles exist: time and manpower. Maryland believes that its fellowship program is a partial remedy.

"We're not turning out heart surgeons here," said Bernard McCrory, vice president of Caliber Learning Network Inc., which is a partner in the fellowship project. "But we are turning out paramedics. And when you're lying on the Beltway bleeding, these paramedics are the people who will save your life."

Here's the plan. The university system would recruit students from its ranks and from community colleges, signing them on for the two years remaining before 2000. Companies needing help would recruit them, either through interviews or job fairs, and would pay them a competitive wage -- perhaps $20 per hour. The companies also would pay money -- say, $8 an hour -- into a fellowship fund. That money would be waiting to pay for the rest of the student's schooling when he or she finished the two-year information technology stint -- hence the joking reference to the "TI Bill."

Caliber Learning Network, the adult-education subsidiary of Baltimore-based Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., would create an intensive five-week training program that would teach the student recruits the basic COBOL programming language employed by many of the old, but still-in-use mainframe computer systems that are among the biggest nests of the Y2K bugs.

However, COBOL is an ancient language -- in cyber time -- in which the students being churned out of computer schools aren't schooled.

Caliber proposes to devise programs that would make the students experts in COBOL -- or other older languages -- to the point that they could construct, deconstruct, trouble-shoot and test software using that language. As proposed, the students would even get six credits for their work. The companies would pay Caliber.

There could be a downside. In the lightning-fast world of technology, students who spend two years becoming experts on a programming language fit for a Smithsonian Institute exhibit could get left in the digital dust.

But David C. Hartmann, the creator of the fellowship and a consultant working with the University System of Maryland, believes that the problem-solving experience, coupled with the exposure to the corporate world, would help the students immensely when they returned to the classroom richer in wealth and knowledge.

Most of the nearly 100 people who attended a press conference announcing the plan responded favorably. But not everyone.

"Ridiculous," is how P. R. Menon, senior project manager for Computer Systems Management Inc. of Alexandria, Va., described the project. "If I went into a federal agency with a bunch of kids, they'd laugh me right out of the place."

Hartmann countered by saying the students wouldn't necessarily have to do the front-line work. They could take over the everyday tasks of the most senior people who are elevated to the main team on a Y2K project, he said. Besides, there may be no other choice since there are not enough people to do the work, he added.

One study said that -- even without the Year 2000 problem -- there are nearly 400,000 positions open in the information technology field because no one is available to fill them. Work is being shifted to India and Russia, and the Y2K problem figures to make that worse, Hartmann said.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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