Mainframe skills crunch looms

Cobol is not students' language of choice

Art Louise is like many mainframe professionals. He has three decades of experience with systems and programming languages such as Cobol and assembler that remain critical in datacentres but aren't the skills of choice for most young IT professionals.

The generational gap will likely be obvious at the upcoming conference of Share, an IBM user group. And Louise, who manages mainframes at healthcare provider Group Health, says businesses like his may soon have trouble finding workers with mainframe skills.

The need to integrate third-party software with upgraded mainframe operating systems and custom applications will be one of the big issues facing companies, Louise says.

"There aren't a lot of people who are going to school for Cobol," he said. "Basically, it's a trickle-down issue."

IBM and other vendors also have concerns about a lack of mainframe know-how.

"I personally feel that there is a skills shortage out there," said Bill Miller, a vice president and general manager at BMC Software. "Colleges and universities in the past 10 years have not been delivering to the marketplace people with assembler skills, especially."

IBM, citing the skills gap, says there are now 150 colleges and universities worldwide participating in its Academic Initiative. The programme, which was launched in 2003, includes training on the company's zSeries mainframes. IBM plans to double the number of schools that are involved.

"I think people recognise the fact that there is a potential problem coming," says Bob Shannon, treasurer of the Share user group and a manager at Rocket Software. Share runs many mainframe-related training programs.

However, Share and other mainframe backers may be facing an uphill fight luring many young IT workers to the technology.

For instance, Northern Illinois University is one of the universities with a mainframe-specific programme. However, the perception among incoming students is often that the mainframe is an old, uninteresting technology, despite the high job placement rate of mainframe graduates, saysPenny McIntire, a faculty member and assistant to the chairman of the computer science department.

The makeup of the faculty at Northern Illinois may reinforce that perception, she says. Many of the professors who teach mainframe classes are of baby boomer age or older, says McIntire, who adds that she is worried about replacing them when they retire.

IBM's decision to put Linux on the mainframe has helped expand IT interest in the systems, and about 25% of the attendees at recent Share conferences were first-time visitors, according to Louise, who is active in the user group.

IT executives such as Jim Dillon, CIO of New York's state government, remain firmly committed to using mainframes. "We see us staying with the mainframe for some time," said Dillon, who attended the announcement of IBM's new System z9 hardware this week.

Dillon says he particularly likes the high-availability and security features that mainframes offer. He says that even though New York has moved more of its applications to open systems, he wants to continue taking advantage of the skills and expertise of the state's mainframe professionals.

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