As Baby Boomers retire, the shortage of mainframe professionals grows more acute  

People who started their careers when the mainframe was king are retiring in droves, yet this computing platform is still vital to many businesses

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For years we have been hearing about critical IT skills shortages. Companies just can’t find enough (or the right) people with expertise in mobility, cybersecurity, data storage, networking, cloud and other important areas.

There’s one area, however, where the shortage is becoming acute, and affected companies that don’t act now might soon find themselves in a world of hurt. I’m talking about the business-critical discipline of mainframe stewardship.

Experts have been warning about this for at least a decade, and the days of reckoning are here, driven largely by the fact that mainframe champions are retiring from the workforce in droves. People who started their IT careers in the 1970’s and 1980’s – when the mainframe was king – are now baby boomers at the end of their careers. The generations behind them took up different computing platforms, meaning there are few people to pass the mainframe torch to. By some estimates there will be more than 84,000 open positions in this field by 2020.

One factor contributing to the shortage is that many colleges no longer teach traditional mainframe technologies and skills. When I started my computer science program some 30 years ago, two of the required courses were Intro to Fortran and Intro to COBOL. When I look at my university’s computer science program today, there is not a single COBOL course in the curriculum. Those courses have been supplanted by topics like Object-Oriented and GUI Programming, and Web Architecture and Application Development. But then, the university is only catering to its customer base: the students that hope to work for the likes of Apple, Google and Microsoft someday.

Despite occasional claims that “the mainframe is dead,” 85% of our typical daily transactions such as ATM withdrawals and credit card payments still go through mainframe systems. In fact, the decades-old Customer Information Control System (CICS), affectionately called “kix” by us oldsters, along with the COBOL programming language, still play fundamental roles in building customer transaction applications. A financial services application might have a web-based front end, but often the transactions will be processed by a mainframe on the back-end—and someone has to maintain it.

Even in these days of cloud-based infrastructure, the mainframe has an expanding role and responsibility in business. Because a mainframe offers reliable performance and strict security, it is often the on-premise component of a hybrid cloud environment that processes and stores an organization’s most sensitive data. This platform serves a vital role in Big Data and analytics applications, which are only increasing in relevance today.

This brings us to the escalating shortage of people with mainframe skills. The mainframe software company Compuware recently surveyed 350 global CIOs for their take on the issue. 88% of the respondents say the mainframe will continue to be a key business asset over the next decade. Despite the importance of the platform to ongoing business, 75% of these same CIOs believe today’s application developers don’t understand the importance of the mainframe. What’s more, 70% say that there is not an effective means for transfer of knowledge from the older generation of workers – those heading off to retirement – to the younger generations of talent. The CIOs believe this will put their business at risk.

Compuware CEO Chris O’Malley points out that some mainframe professionals have been in their jobs for decades, doing application development and producing millions of lines of code. Many of the applications they work on are custom-built for a specific company. There is a dire need to pass that institutional knowledge on to new workers who can take over stewardship of the applications.

In his white paper “The Mainframe Talent Drain: How a Baby Boomer Exodus is Impacting Mainframe Operations and What Organizations Can Do to Adapt,” Ken Harper, IT Director with the outsourcing services company Ensono, says there are four potential solutions to the mainframe talent shortage:

1.     Move off the mainframe. While some companies are migrating applications to platforms in the cloud with the intent to move off the mainframe, this isn’t even an option for organizations that need the processing power and high degree of security the mainframe provides.

2.     Develop talent from within. The strategy requires an ongoing commitment of time and resources to develop and manage a plan for internal talent development. “But when done proactively and in the right situation, it’s an investment that can pay off with solid dividends,” says Harper.

3.     Source talent externally. The dynamics of talent supply and demand make it more challenging than ever to find experienced and qualified external mainframe talent. Even if a company is able to find the talent, it will require an investment in money and time to hire and transition these employees into the organization.

4.     Outsource mainframe operations. There are two outsourcing options, says Harper: Managed Services and Remote Infrastructure Management (RIM). Both involve hiring someone else to take care of mainframe stewardship until the need no longer exists.

IBM has a vested interest in this problem, given that mainframe sales and services are still a healthy business for the company. The vendor has developed an academic initiative designed to educate students and Millennials, in particular, about the mainframe, and to help equip colleges and universities to teach mainframe skills.

Internal mentoring programs also are important. Younger workers can be paired with more experienced workers on projects. These kinds of programs work best when the mainframe worker-in-training can be given ownership of important projects, but still have guidance from a mentor in the background.

The mainframe is far from dead, and a new generation of IT professionals needs to be steered into working on this platform. It’s the only way this industry can resolve the skills shortage crisis.

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