We all know the stereotype of a mainframe programmer or admin: gray hair, graduated from college in 1965, drives a Chrysler—and is about to retire, leaving a massive hole that his employer will find difficult to fill because no one under 60 knows how to use a mainframe.
Now, let’s look at another stereotype: the millennial programmer. He/she is a few years out of college, with a degree in computer science, green or blue hair, and enough student debt to sink a yacht. The usual next step is to move to San Francisco, pay $2,200 a month to live under a staircase like Harry Potter and dream of joining a company that has a one-in-a-million chance of becoming the next Google.
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Folks in that second category are trying to figure out what the next two years of their lives (let alone the next 40!) are going to look like. Sure, they could throw themselves into the startup world and hope to end up at a firm that will have a killer IPO six or seven years from now. Or they could try the road less traveled to become mainframe experts at the world’s top companies (including just about every financial institution), which are always looking for bright young talent—and are willing to pay top dollar to hire and train the next generation of big iron leaders.
You mean those huge boxes with the tape reels from 70s movies?
I could have started this post by writing, “Mainframes might not sound hip and sexy to you whippersnappers…” But the truth is mainframe skills are a pretty hot commodity among banks, insurance companies, government agencies and manufacturing giants. And while it might not be top of mind for the majority of younger comp-sci majors, thousands of the world’s largest organizations rely on mainframes for their processing needs. Today, some of these organizations face a challenge, as fewer young techies seek careers in big iron, leaving them with open positions.
3 reasons to consider a career in big iron
So, in a world of Java and Python, why bother to learn mainframes at all? Here are three big reasons why mainframing can be the ideal “blue ocean” strategy for your early years.
1. New blood is a premium
Between 60 percent and 70 percent of the mainframe community is estimated to retire within the next 10 years. This leaves banks and other companies relying on mainframes and having a lot of jobs to fill. These are big, successful companies willing to pay top dollar for top talent to take the reins from the experts—and these aren’t just entry-level positions. Today’s 26-year-old newbie will have ample opportunities for advancement for decades to come.
2. Go where the jobs are
For young people seeking job mobility, the growing retirement rate among current mainframers means young engineers and programmers who know Big Iron will be able to get a job at any number of major companies.
Folks who want to see the world, live close to home or maybe just not pay San Francisco rent are in luck because companies are using mainframes all across the United States, Europe and Asia—and all of them are facing the same shortage of smart young engineers. If you want to work in Singapore for a few years, end up London or even stay close to your hometown, having mainframe skills means you can pretty much write your own ticket because you’ll always be in demand.
3. Work with your current skills
Let’s face it: The main reason to go to college is to get skills that will help you enter the job market. And because mainframes are such a hot employment sector, a growing number of colleges are offering minors and certifications in mainframe technology.
You don’t need to go back to school, however, to become a professional mainframer thanks to application modernization. Simply put, there are hundreds of tools on the market that let programmers and system administrators code in the languages they already know, such as C and Python, and have it easily integrated with other languages, including COBOL and PL/I.
For people just getting started in computing, it can be difficult to take a long view of one’s career. After all, there’s rent to pay and student loans to whittle down. But as someone who has worked in mainframes for over 25 years, I can tell you: The future has a way of sneaking up pretty quickly, and an on-demand sector of the tech market is an awfully nice place to be when you get tired of eating ramen with your five roommates—and tired of sporting green hair.
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