A five-pronged strategy to fill mainframe openings

Organizations are seeking young, enthusiastic talent to fill the big iron team. It's all a matter of attracting and retaining the right staff.

The mainframe is going grey, as the last wave of experienced practitioners lurches into their 50s. The lack of...

young mainframe talent presents a bigger threat to the continuing viability of the platform than software prices and commodity hardware do.

Rather than look for ways to migrate all workloads off the mainframe, outsource mainframe operations to a third party or deny retirement requests from your existing team, make sure to entice a new wave of IT pros to fill up your organization's mainframe openings.

Get 'em hooked

The ratio of available mainframe openings to young talent is high. IBM identified this problem with its mainframe operators and programmers years ago. Since then, it has taken steps to ameliorate the situation. IBM's Academic Initiative provides universities with free materials and software to build mainframe curricula. The company publishes a list of participating universities from which mainframe shops can recruit graduates or join the program.

Recent graduates and inexperienced new hires hear rumors and half-truths about mainframes that prove difficult to dislodge.

IBM's annual international Master the Mainframe contest enlists high school and college students to go through a series of challenges that introduce them to big iron. The contest is designed to give participants experience working with the mainframe and hopefully fuel a desire to pursue a career with it.

Professional organizations offer youth-oriented programs as well. SHARE conferences, for example, put on several introductory session tracks and host social events for mainframe newcomers to mix and mingle.

The whole truth and nothing but the truth

Recent graduates and inexperienced new hires hear rumors and half-truths about mainframes that prove difficult to dislodge. Enterprises should take the opportunity to tell the truth about big iron's strengths if they want young mainframers on board.

Begin courting the newcomers by stressing mainframe's software and hardware sophistication. Point out to newcomers that each new release and processor family adds features and improves functionality, with sophisticated optimization and parallelization algorithms. Position the mainframe as computing's gold standard for security and reliability.

It's about the technology, stupid

Let the bits and bytes of the mainframe draw in technically oriented graduates. The mainframe is one of the few platforms that uses Assembler language extensively.

Contrast mainframe's windows into internals and extensive customization options with other platforms, where dealing with an outage means rebooting the server and sending dumps to the vendor. Mainframe's monitoring and dump-reading tools, with the accompanying documentation, allow curious newbies to wander through system structures and figure out how it's all put together.

Clear the career path

Rotate new employees through different parts of IT every six to nine months. Make sure that you linger in the mainframe department, where fresh hires will get a feel for big iron, perhaps their first real encounter with the platform.

Start talking about the mainframe

Should I stay or should I go?

Is pay the way to an IT admin's heart?

What's the way forward as a mainframe newbie?

Depending on your corporate structure, mainframe can provide recruits with a sure career path, unlike the overcrowded Unix administrator and Java programming fields. Due to the ongoing mainframe skills shortage, IT pros on the market with big iron experience will be more valuable to enterprise employers or to other prospective companies.

In exchange for this mainframe interest, an enterprise may have to make room at the top of the corporate ladder. Most senior mainframe positions are likely held by people with many years of experience, and an ambitious young person seeking to climb the ranks could be turned off by the "gray ceiling."

Do as I do

It only takes a few months for newbies to understand their platform's place in the company. In that time, do any of your IT leaders present the mainframe as an antique or with one caster in the grave?

Enterprises must acknowledge the importance of the host to the whole organization's strategic direction and stress continued investment in the platform. Employees like making contributions to their company's success and want to be recognized as belonging to a valued department.

About the author:

Robert Crawford spent 29 years as a systems programmer, covering CICS technical support, Virtual Storage Access Method, IBM DB2, IBM IMS and other mainframe products. He programmed in Assembler, Rexx, C, C++, PL/1 and COBOL. Crawford is currently an operations architect based in south Texas, establishing mainframe strategy for a large insurance company.
captainwhacks@yahoo.com

This was last published in April 2014

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What common mainframe misconception do you hear the most?
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cobol is dead
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Being in Mainframes field as CICS system programmer for almost nine and half years, I am pretty much happy with my work, Where i got oppurtunity to work for Big Insurance companies, Banks and consumer retails. But feel very sad when
i see lots of blogs, discussion, forums where they say Mainframes is dying, as every one are converting their data in to other platforms like Hadoop, Tableau etc.
       Reading your articles really makes feel good that Mainframes still play a vital role in many big companies. But
Most of the people believe its going away as they think that there are less job oppurtunities and alos less pay.
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I agree that the current industry concern over skills has influenced many resourcing decisions across the industry, especially in support of classic systems like the mainframe. To your point, the ratio of available mainframe openings to emerging young talent is high and something that IT departments need to prepare for as skill concerns play an increasingly important factor in the future support of enterprise application portfolios. One way to do this is by educating young IT professionals of the skills that are highly sought after by these IT organizations. One such in-demand skills is that of COBOL.

Since Mainframe and COBOL skills are not always taught in schools today, young professionals are unequipped with the proper training needed to replace experienced workers. Even as new advancements emerge, traditional skills still remain critical. One way that we remedy this problem is through the Micro Focus Academic Program, which works with universities to help students entering the IT industry develop traditional IT skills sought after by enterprise organizations. It also provides an interface through which existing students can connect with prospective employers, seeking Mainframe and COBOL based development skills.

Universities and other academic institutions must also be made aware of the current IT skills gap concerns and address these areas in their curriculum. Not only will this help bridge the IT skills gap but it will also help build a better foundation and skill set for the next generation of IT professionals.

-- Ed Airey, Product Marketing Director, COBOL Products, Micro Focus
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