Is there a mainframe skills shortage?

As baby-boomer IT professionals retire over the next five to seven years, mainframe shops are going to have great difficulty managing their mainframe environments. But how serious is the mainframe skills shortage?

I've got a lot of respect for much of the market research that Gartner produces -- but in this case I believe that Gartner is just plain wrong. In a recent research note, "Impact of Generational IT Skill Shift on Legacy Applications", Gartner suggests that a pending, projected decrease in mainframe-skilled individuals may be a reason to migrate to other, "more-modern application platforms".

The logic is that as baby-boomer mainframe coders and administrators leave the workforce over the next five to seven years, mainframe shops (particularly the smaller ones) are going to have great difficulty managing their mainframe environments or maintaining legacy COBOL code. Thus, IT executives should start planning to go to other platforms.

However, this Gartner report failed to identify which specific skills were "at risk." Additionally, it failed to identify that there is a skills shortage across the entire IT industry and not just in the mainframe market. Furthermore, this mainframe skills shortage problem is geographical; and all of the new improvements that IBM is making in mainframe management may actually reduce the number of people needed to manage mainframes in the future, as well as reduce the skills needed to manage mainframe environments.

Based on interviews with IT executives, university professors, IT recruiters, and IBM:

  • Some mainframe skills are indeed in short supply;
  • Other skills are readily available (especially Java/Linux skills); and,
  • The projected need for an army of mainframe-skilled IT professionals to replace the existing generation of soon-to-retire mainframers may never materialize.

COBOL programming

The term "mainframe skills" needs to be better defined. In my research, I found that IT managers, recruiters, and university professors have generally separated "mainframe skills" into four groups:

  1. COBOL programmers (applications developers and code maintainers);
  2. Administrators and managers (with CICS, zOS, and systems management skills);
  3. Operations/planning staffs (business/design consultants, DBAs, and the like); and,
  4. New applications designers (Java/Linux skill sets).

It is estimated that there are between 150 billion and 200 billion lines of COBOL code in play in the mainframe marketplace today with several billions of lines added annually. Despite rumors of its forthcoming demise, COBOL development is not going away anytime soon. Still, given the huge base of COBOL code in the market today, IT executives who run mainframe shops should be very concerned about maintaining COBOL skills over time. But, is there a critical COBOL skills shortage in the world today? Will there be a critical COBOL skills shortage in the foreseeable future?

As I interviewed IT executives, IT recruiters, and university professors, the following picture developed: IT executives who are able to outsource their COBOL development and maintenance claim that there is no COBOL resource shortage. COBOL skills are "easy to find" in India and elsewhere. IT executives who cannot take advantage of outsourcing due to security or legislative restrictions are forced to rely on domestic COBOL programmers who are in comparatively short supply. These programmers usually make themselves available on a contract basis and usually at premium prices.

There is a perception in the United States and the European Union that COBOL is a dying programming language (in fact, one professor told me that there is an outright bias against COBOL at some universities). As a result, the current generation of U.S. and E.U. object-oriented programmers want little to do with COBOL. And further research showed that few U.S./E.U universities still offer COBOL courses.

Some enterprises face an additional hurdle ― a requirement to "own" their COBOL talent; in other words, a requirement to directly employ COBOL programmers. For instance, several government organizations require that their computer systems personnel be full-time, salaried employees, some for security reasons and others to limit expenditures on contract labor. There is clearly a shortage of COBOL talent in the U.S. and the E.U. ― and having to find permanent, full-time COBOL help presents a real challenge. For enterprises with these special requirements, finding and keeping COBOL talent can be expensive.

However, some university professors are promoting the message that "COBOL will make you marketable". Several of these professors mentioned that they inform their students that COBOL-skilled individuals are able to command higher salaries than their object-oriented, Java counterparts. Some domestic U.S. students are buying this message. By comparison, this message is playing really well at IBM's Shanghai mainframe development lab where COBOL enrollments are way up and the money chase is on.

Mainframe systems administration and management

As I researched skills shortages in the areas of administration and management, I found hundreds-upon-hundreds of openings posted on employment sites. These sites show that there is clear demand for mainframe administrative and management skills. Further, a large number of these postings often go unfulfilled over a thirty-day period, indicating to me that enterprises are having trouble filling these positions.

However, one IT recruiter told me that "the demand for mainframe skills pales in comparison to the demand for hardware technicians, help desk staff, and client/server database administrators ― particularly Oracle and SQL Server database administrators." The problem of finding individuals with computer skills is not solely a mainframe problem ― it's a problem across the entire computing industry. On the day that I visited Dice.com's Web site, I found that there were four times as many jobs that needed to be filled in non-mainframe disciplines. In short, there's a major shortage of trained IT talent across the industry.

Modern mainframes, operations and planning

Finding mainframe database administrators, business consultants, business process flow experts, designers, integrators, and testers is difficult. But this is a cross-industry problem. There are still thousands of jobs posted for mainframe design, implementation, testing, and communications positions. This tells me that enterprises are still strategically committed to mainframes as back-end database servers, transaction engines, and security hubs. They are not looking to abandon or "re-platform" their mainframes.

Over the past five years, IBM has reinvented the mainframe and endowed it with new processing capabilities. These capabilities include specialty processing engines (zIIP and zAAP), as well as the ability to run thousands of Linux instances on a mainframe platform. This ability to run the Linux operating environment, and accompanying Java applications, modernizes the mainframe. It makes it possible to use mainframes to run modernized (non-COBOL legacy) applications. And, the ability to run these modern workloads solves a big problem for mainframe buyers because there are plenty of fresh college graduates available who have been trained on Java/Linux platforms. If an enterprise purchases a mainframe to run Java/Linux workloads, that enterprise is likely to experience fewer problems finding the skills needed to run its mainframes.

Retiring mainframe staff and future managers

I could find no studies that showed how many mainframers are about to reach retirement age. It is reasonable to expect that the bulk of these retirements will occur between five and twelve years from now as this is the timeframe when most of the baby-boomers reach retirement age. These retirements will happen in a phased manner, and some prospective retirees will not retire at all, working beyond official retirement age. Add to this mixture that there are plenty of 35 to 50 year olds involved in managing mainframe environments today. Not everyone who manages a mainframe is over 60 years old, so there is a "second crop" of mainframe managers currently in the queue at many enterprises throughout the world.

Also, mainframes are becoming easier and easier to manage. IBM is simplifying mainframe management and is spending $100 million to give the mainframe a Windows-oriented, easy-to-use graphical user interface. By doing this, IBM is not only making it possible for lesser-skilled individuals to manage mainframes ― the company is also making mainframe management appeal to our next generation of Windows-born-and-raised managers and administrators.

The mainframe serves a unique role in the enterprise as a centralized, secure database hub, as a powerful transaction engine, and as a host of mission-critical business logic. IT executives know this ― and maybe this is why the mainframe market grew 8% last year. The bottom line: the Gartner suggestions that IT executives consider "re-platforming" or migrating to other "more modern application platforms" due to a projected, unsubstantiated shortage in mainframe skills needs to be re-thought.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joe Clabby is president and founder of Clabby Analytics, an IT research and analysis firm. He has over thirty years of IT experience.

This was first published in March 2007

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