Shortage of mainframe skills may give IT execs gray hairs

Big-iron backers continue to fret about the looming lack of know-how

Art Louise is like many mainframe professionals. He has three decades of experience with systems and programming languages such as Cobol and assembler that remain critical in data centers but aren't the skills of choice for most new IT professionals.

The generational gap will likely be obvious at the Share user group's conference later this month in Boston. And Louise, who manages mainframes at New York-based Group Health Inc., said last week that businesses like his may soon have trouble finding workers with mainframe skills.

The need to integrate third-party software with upgraded mainframe operating systems and custom applications will be one of the big issues facing companies, Louise predicted.

"There aren't a lot of people who are going to school for Cobol," he said. "Basically, it's a trickle-down issue."

IBM and other vendors also have concerns about a lack of mainframe know-how.

"I personally feel that there is a skills shortage out there," said Bill Miller, a vice president and general manager at Houston-based BMC Software Inc. "Colleges and universities in the past 10 years have not been delivering to the marketplace people with assembler skills, especially."

IBM, citing the skills gap, said last month that there are now 150 colleges and universities worldwide participating in its Academic Initiative. The program, which was launched in 2003, includes training on the company's zSeries mainframes. IBM hopes to double the number of schools that are involved by year's end.

"I think people recognize the fact that there is a potential problem coming," said Bob Shannon, treasurer of Share and a manager at Rocket Software Inc. in Newton, Mass. Share runs many mainframe-related training programs.

Perception Problem

But the Chicago-based user group and other mainframe backers may be facing an uphill fight luring many young IT workers to the technology.

For instance, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb is one of the universities with a mainframe-specific program. But the perception among incoming students is often that the mainframe is an old, uninteresting technology, despite the high job placement rate of mainframe graduates, said Penny McIntire, a faculty member and assistant to the chairman of the computer science department.

The makeup of the faculty at Northern Illinois may reinforce that perception, she noted. Many of the professors who teach mainframe classes are of baby boomer age or older, said McIntire, who added that she is worried about replacing them when they retire.

IBM's decision to put Linux on the mainframe has helped expand IT interest in the systems, and about 25% of the attendees at recent Share conferences were first-time visitors, according to Louise, who is active in the user group.

IT executives such as Jim Dillon, CIO of New York's state government, remain firmly committed to using mainframes. "We see us staying with the mainframe for some time," said Dillon, who attended the announcement of IBM's System z9 hardware last week (see story).

Dillon said he particularly likes the high-availability and security features that mainframes offer. He added that even though New York has moved more of its applications to open systems, he wants to continue taking advantage of the skills and expertise of the state's mainframe professionals.

From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies