Micro Focus aims to make Cobol learning fashionable again

* Micro Focus attempts to address the Cobol skills shortage

When the threat of Y2K reared its head many of us IT reporters wrote heaps about luring programmers out of early retirement to make sure that Cobol-based applications didn't go kaput when the clocks ushered in the New Year. Now enterprises are once again seeking folks with Cobol programming experience to replace the Cobol Baby Boomers who are entering retirement. According to a survey of 650 customers by enterprise software vendor Micro Focus, 70% said recruiting Cobol skills would be important in the next five years.

With the Cobol skills shortage a reality (70% of survey respondents said it has been difficult to recruit Cobol expertise in the last five years) Micro Focus in May created the Micro Focus Academic Connections (Action) Program to encourage colleges and universities around the world to start teaching Cobol again. Already the program has signed on 22 U.S. colleges and universities to which Micro Focus is providing free software, including Net Express Academic Edition, Mainframe Express Enterprise Edition Academic Edition, plus free online Web support and manuals. Micro Focus is also offering subsidized training for faculty and free books for student reference. Graduates will also be put into contact with Micro Focus customers that are in need of Cobol programmers.

Cobol is stil key in financial institutions, says Arun Ramadoss, head of Micro Focus Academic Connections. IBM cites several statistics that suggest that 70% of the world's business data is still being processed by mainframe applications writen in Cobol. And it will likely stay that way as "simply ripping and replacing these legacy systems is out of the question," notes IBM on its Web site.

Despite its importance in the financial services industry, Cobol as a programming language fell out of fashion in schools during the dot-com days when students wanted to learn modern languages such as C++ and Java, says Ramadoss. Now Micro Focus hopes to make it fashionable again with the temptation of potential jobs with its customers.

Some of the U.S. institutions offering Cobol programming education include New York City College of Technology, Kansas State University, University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Central Carolina Technical College, and Colorado Tech University. Ramadoss says the program is available to 3,000 students in the world, and 2,200 in the United States. He expects between 1,000 and 1,200 Cobol programmers to graduate next year. 

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