IBM Plugs Big Iron to the College Crowd

Aims to fill IT vacancies as baby boomers retire

IBM is trying to convince growing numbers of young engineers that the mainframe isn't dead yet.

For example, thousands of college students have participated in an IBM-created mainframe training and curriculum program that's aimed at generating interest and building skills in the field as baby boomer IT workers near retirement age.

Since its launch two years ago, more than 130 colleges and universities worldwide have joined the IBM Academic Initiative. Under the program, IBM helps schools develop and share mainframe-related curricula, said Mike Bliss, director of zSeries technical support and marketing at IBM.

Some students say the program is awakening a previously unknown interest in mainframe technology. "I wouldn't have been interested in the mainframe [much] at all if I hadn't been exposed to" the IBM program, said Joshua Smith, a 24-year-old programmer/analyst at The Timken Co., a Canton, Ohio-based bearings manufacturer.

While a senior mathematics major at Canton-based Malone College in 2003, Smith took an assembler programming course offered through the IBM program. The course also contributed to his landing a job at Timken.

Prior to taking the class, said Smith, "my opinion of the mainframe was that it was a dying breed." But during the program, a trusted professor told Smith that mainframes are still very much in use and that employers continue to recruit workers with those skills.

For instance, American Fidelity Assurance Co. still processes roughly 75% of its workload on mainframes, said John Schille, CIO at the Oklahoma City-based company. "We would be interested in supporting university education geared toward training in this environment to supplement staff replacement needs, specifically upcoming retirement issues," Schille said.

Preparing for the Future

Schille isn't alone. Over the past few years, LexisNexis Group, a legal research provider in Dayton, Ohio, has hired a handful of entry-level IT workers with mainframe-related experience, said Allan McLaughlin, senior vice president and chief technology officer. "The potential retirement [of] some of our very specific mainframe talent keeps me up at night," he said.

IBM isn't expecting a mass exodus of mainframe talent, said Bliss. "But we do need to get some younger folks started to build those skills," particularly since it takes a few years for IT workers to embrace the complexity of the environment, he said.

According to Bliss, last October IBM set a goal of putting 20,000 people through the program by the end of 2010.

Earl Rodd, an assistant professor of computer science at Malone College, said that the school got involved in the IBM program in early 2003 because mainframes are a "significant" part of corporate computing. "Our [computer science] program is intentionally broad instead of deep in order to expose people to a lot of things they probably haven't seen before," he added.

Chris Baran, a sophomore computer science major at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., who is interning at IBM this summer, is active in the New Hire forum, a group of IBM Academic Initiative students and customers that is trying to interest students in studying the mainframe.

The group is planning to launch a z/OS programming contest in August in which student participants will have access to mainframes at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "The main focus of our contest is to get students excited about working with the mainframe," said Baran. "We're trying to get people to realize that mainframes are not dead."


IBM Academic Initiative

WHAT IT IS: A program the vendor launched two years ago to encourage college students to study mainframe computing.

WHAT IT OFFERS: The initiative lets students and faculty at more than 130 universities and colleges worldwide access mainframes for lab work. IBM also works with colleges to develop curricula.

WHO'S INVOLVED: Thousands of computer science students have already participated. IBM has a goal of putting 20,000 people through the program by 2010.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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