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Mainframe Brain Drain Looms

Retirements to sap expertise; data center group offers training

March 31, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Las Vegas—A mainframe skills shortage is emerging as subtly as gray hair. It's bumping up training costs and raising concerns among data center managers who wonder how they will replace retiring green-screen wizards with workers weaned on Windows and open systems.

Addressing a problem it says has the potential to become acute over the next five to seven years, a data center professional association last week announced a program to help companies attract and train IT professionals to prevent a future shortage of mainframe workers.

At its semiannual conference here, AFCOM outlined a Data Center Knowledge Initiative that includes offering online courses in data center skills in conjunction with Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based Marist College and developing a best-practice knowledge base to which data center managers can contribute their expertise.

"We believe it's a very important issue," said Brian Koma, vice president of marketing at Orange, Calif.-based AFCOM (the Association for Computer Operations Management). He said the organization hopes the initiative will prompt IT managers "to take some early action" to plan for retirements "so they don't have to spend more money later."

In addition to offering hands-on training sessions at AFCOM's semiannual conferences, the initiative provides for undergraduate and certificate courses in data center technology.

Aging Mainframers

A study last year by Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., found that 55% of IT workers with mainframe experience are over 50 years old. Conference attendees, such as Gerald Tucker, data center operations manager at Foster Farms Inc., one of the largest poultry operations in the U.S., readily agreed with that finding. But he said he isn't sure what to do about it.

Tucker has two mainframe operators with more than 20 years of experience who plan to retire in about six years, and he said finding replacements could be a problem.

"The solution could be an outsourcing possibility at that time," he said.

The Livingston, Calif.-based company needs to find people with a rare set of characteristics: They must have good technical skills and be comfortable dealing with repetitive and mundane tasks, said Tucker. "They are usually one or the other," he said.

Getting IT professionals, especially young ones, interested in learning mainframe work isn't easy. But Ruben Trujillo, a technical specialist at U.S. Foodservice in Phoenix, said a company program seems to be helping.

New IT employees who may be destined to work in finance, for instance, can volunteer to tour the data center and be exposed to its operations. "It's opened up interest," he said.

One of the data center's selling points is its critical, round-the-clock nature, said Trujillo. "The pressure and importance of it are very high," he said, noting that that can be appealing to some prospective employees. Moreover, the work schedule—12.5-hour shifts with alternate three- and four-day weeks—is attractive to some, said Trujillo. "I love it. It allows me to spend more time with my family," he said.

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