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Mainframe labor pool bolstered by IBM contest

Mainframes have proven in some environments to be irreplaceable, but the labor force for the venerable platform is waning. IBM is trying to help shops offset the fade.

Mainframes aren't going away any time soon. What is fading, though, is the platform's aging labor force, whose wrinkles worry hiring managers that are hustling to snag young mainframe talent .

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Helen Ho, a resource manager at Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Insurance Co., is in the same boat as many human resource directors at mainframe shops -- aiming to dispel the platform's stigma of obsolescence and promote the development of a mainframe skill set.

According to Ho, the demand for mainframe pros is there and jobs await, but the IT media needs to balance coverage of Unix and Wintel.

"I'm trying to woo people who are local," Ho said, who has worked with IBM and nearby universities to spread the word about mainframe demand. "Outside [of Illinois], when I go to job fairs, I get a lot of blank stares from students because none of their professors talk about it."

In order to boost mainframe awareness, IBM recently held a "Master the Mainframe" contest, boasting over 700 students from 85 North American colleges. Big Blue tasked contestants to complete a series of computing challenges. According to IBM, 75% of contestants had never logged into a mainframe prior to this challenge.

Through three progressively difficult sections, the contest had students acquaint themselves with the mainframe interface, learn its basic user commands, then develop more in-depth commands to tackle working-world issues, such as transactional processing and integrating databases.

The contest was part of IBM's Academic Initiative, which overlaps with similar company efforts to inject interest into the iSeries (System i) market by hosting university events and lobbying for new curriculum. Alongside Allstate, IBM has also teamed with companies such as Citibank and Aetna Inc. to increase mainframe awareness, according to Mike Todd, academic initiative advisor for zSeries, IBM's line of mainframes.

"This isn't just coming from IBM, this is industry wide," Todd said. "We talk mainly about the skill shortage. Companies are really clamoring for new blood in this stuff."

For IBM, the contest, the deadline of which was New Years' eve 2005, wasn't just straight promotion -- it was also a way to garner resumes. IBM has since brought on several high-scoring contestants, and Allstate recently hired a paid summer intern through these computing challenges.

" [IBM had] given me a list of people who'd performed well," Ho said. "I figured if they were interested in the contest, they'd have a passion for mainframe work."

Allstate hired, Tim Pinkawa, a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Pinkawa will mostly be shadowing one of Allstate's mainframe veterans during his 12-week stint, Ho said, but it's not uncommon for this to be the first step in grooming someone as a potential candidate for a full-time position, post graduation.

For Pinkawa, the situation was unforeseen. His mainframe pursuit came from an interest in Web serving and virtualization, but that before the contest, his experience was completely minimal.

"It was also surprising because generally they don't hire freshman," Pinkawa said, adding that most of his friends, who are into .net and Java, don't' have internships this summer. "They'd say 'Why would you do this. Mainframes are boring, and there's no jobs out there.' But I think it's a good platform. Everyone thinks it's legacy code, but it's a modern platform. It's maybe not well-suited for scientific computing, more for business related stuff, but there it's perfect -- better than racks and racks of servers."

Earlier this month, after earning a runner-up status in the contest, Anna Kruger, a senior computer science major at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, was offered an enterprise systems programming job at IBM.

"I'd done a little mainframe work in my COBOL class, and I thought 'I'm a geek, this looks fun,' " Kruger said. "And once I started I couldn't quit it."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Joe Spurr, News Writer

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