Millennium pay-day bonanza

THE millennium is shaping up as a bonanza for computer experts, waiters, disc jockeys, musicians, childminders, bar staff - and anyone else willing to give up a night's fun for a small fortune that, for some, will be as much as £50,000.

So great is the demand for expertise to protect against millennium meltdown that some computer staff are being offered "golden handcuff" deals of a year's salary to remain in post beyond the critical deadline of December 31, 1999. Others expect to pocket up to £10,000 simply for working on that one crucial night.

The bonanza has been sparked by companies, government departments and local authorities scrambling to make computer systems safe before the bug strikes.

Allied Dunbar and Eagle Star staff are being promised an extra year's salary - estimated at between £20,000 and £50,000 - if they stay until the problem has passed. Payments in kind are also being offered including, at one City bank, first-class return flights to Australia.

Freelance programmers who agree to stand by as "firefighters" on millennium night are talking of earning £1,000 an hour. Freelance rates normally stand at between £30 and £90 an hour.

Ben Science, a 31-year-old freelance computer analyst, said last week that he expected to earn more in 1999 than ever before. Demand for specialist programmers already far outstripped supply and the position would get "better" as the year progressed, he said.

"For programmers with the older computer languages there is very strong demand," he said. "The going rate for New Year's Eve will be about £1,000 an hour, but if things go wrong there will be work for months after that."

The millennium bug - caused by computer clocks and programs which do not recognise the year 2000 - will cost British business an estimated £25 billion.

Companies such as BT, Barclays Bank and Unilever have already spent hundreds of millions employing experts to check software programs character by character, line by line. Most still have a long way to go. Even those companies which are ahead of the game will need crisis teams of programmers on duty the night the millennium turns.

"Some programmers are already clearing £160,000 a year," said Grant Seidner, of Spring IT, one of Britain's biggest computer recruitment consultancies. "If you were on that sort of money, how much would you be asking to come in on New Year's Eve?"

Programmers on ordinary nine-to-five contracts at BT, one of Britain's biggest computer users, are anticipating being paid £5,000 for working the night the millennium turns. BT denied it would be offering so much last week but other companies confirmed they had agreed to pay their programmers a year's extra salary.

"We are paying 100% bonuses because the heart of our business is computers," said a spokesman for Zurich Financial Services Group. "In our business if the computers go down, your business goes down, so getting things right is vital."

Computer programmers are not the only people expected to make their employers' wallets squeak. Bar staff and waiters can expect a lucrative evening, with some hoping to earn more than £1,000 for a singl