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Demand for AS/400 pros continues, but scope of their work expands

AS/400 administration and RPG programming are still valuable skills, but AS/400 professionals would be well served to add other technical knowledge -- such as e-commerce and back-office application experience -- to their resume when job hunting in the future.

The demand for AS/400 pros is still there, says Angie Bills, an AS/400 search specialist for placement services giant Management Recruiters International (MRI). At her office in Carmel, Ind., a northern suburb of Indianapolis, she is hunting for AS/400 programmers, system operators and administrators, as well as IS managers, operational managers and IS directors with AS/400 smarts.

But the nature of the technical jobs she's recruiting for has changed. The year 2000 conversion boom that kept AS/400 specialists employed at the end of 20th century is definitely gone; corporations are tackling "new-economy" projects such as e-commerce implementations. "Any AS/400 pro looking to be strong in the market can market themselves at the top level if they have e-commerce [skills] and can work in concert with RPG," Bills says.

Bob Hodgson, owner of the MRI office in Camdenton, Mo., is also being asked to find technical employees who have back-office application experience to work on business-automation projects involving enterprise resource planning (ERP) installations. The demand for programmers has weakened in the past two years, he says. "You need to be more than just an expert on the [RPG] language," he adds. One of the most valuable skills an AS/400 pro can have is up-to-date experience in J.D. Edwards' ERP package, Hodgson says.

ERP implementations are big, Bills agrees. And companies need people who can do ongoing programming maintenance on those packages once they're installed, she adds. "They've been using contractors, and they realize they're too expensive," she says. And that's causing them to hire permanent staff who can handle the job.

Both Bills and Hodgson have noticed that there are more AS/400 candidates out there, due to the end of the year-2000 employment blip, they say. That has resulted in salaries stabilizing, Hodgson says. They're flat compared with last year.

Bills has calculated the average salary for her placements over the last year (nearly three dozen AS/400 pros since August 1999) to be about $58,000 per year, with a range of $40,000 for staff members to more than $100,000 for director-level jobs. On average, her hires have 7-plus years' experience in AS/400 systems. Half of her client companies are in the manufacturing industry, 25 percent are insurance and financial services firms, and most of the rest are in transportation.

The salary outlook for next year will be brighter, Bills predicts. The new projects in the ERP and e-commerce areas will boost demand for AS/400 pros, with a resulting uptick in salaries. In general, she says, the AS/400 is a good platform to know, due to IBM's muscular push to make the AS/400 a preferred component of a company's Internet infrastructure. "I think that IBM has made a statement that they're developing new products for the 400," she says. And that makes the AS/400 a good career choice for the future.

One technical area that IBM is pushing hard is Java for the AS/400. Bills says her customers aren't looking for AS/400 pros who have Java experience. However, Bill Hansen, owner of Manta Technologies Inc. in Barrington, Ill., says making the effort to learn Java could pay off in the long run. With IBM throwing its considerable weight behind Java, companies will eventually start employing the technology. And when that happens, the few experienced AS/400 pros with Java knowledge will be in high demand, he says.

But you should keep current on RPG at the same time, Hansen says. RPG will not go away in favor of Java, he says. In fact, he sees the AS/400 job market dividing into two tracks. The first is maintaining existing installations of AS/400 machines, including ongoing programming in RPG. And the second is building new AS/400 shops that boast all the latest technology that IBM is putting on the platform, such as Java and TCP/IP networking.

In fact, says Hansen, AS/400 pros should stop thinking of themselves as single-platform experts. During the past five years the AS/400 market has become less isolated, he says. AS/400s are being connected to Windows NT and Unix machines to form a multiplatform IT network. The smart move is to change your whole job description, he says: "People should start thinking of themselves as infrastructure experts."

Johnson is a freelance writer in Seattle.

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