Mainframe skill shortage

While 90,000 COBOL programmers maintain legacy systems today, Meta Group reports that more than half of today's mainframe pros are at least 50 years old and nearing retirement.

          With 10% of its legacy IT pros heading for retirement through to 2005, Boscov's Department Stores is facing a wake-up call.

          "We have to identify and understand that there is a change in the technology curve, that COBOL staff aren't being trained any longer," Harry Roberts, CIO says.

          "Today's graduates understand Java, Linux, C++, HTML and XML, and these are the languages of the future."

          Last July, the department store chain took a big step to cut ties to the green-screen interface and reduce a 90% dependence on mainframe skills. The company replaced its IBM mainframe and OS/390 operating system with an IBM zSeries 900 mainframe that runs z/OS and Linux.

          Three-quarters of Boscov's data is processed on the mainframe today, but Boscov's will be moving much of it over to Linux by 2007.

          The switch lets the Pennsylvania chain continue to use traditional mainframe COBOL and CICS languages on the z/OS side of the box, together with technologies such as Java running on Linux. With Java-based applications, IT will benefit from real-time browser-based reports in place of static data outputs.

          Eventually, nearly all mainframe programming will be done on Java. Roberts says phasing out COBOL programming will transform his department's skills base to 50% client/server, 25% mainframe and 25% a hybrid mix.

          Donald Carr, professor of Computer Information Systems for Eastern Kentucky University, estimates that 90,000 COBOL programmers maintain legacy systems today. Meta Group reports that more than half of today's mainframe pros are at least 50 years old and nearing retirement.

          However, 60% of hosted applications will continue to reside on mainframes through the next decade and require support from legacy staff. Meta recommends that companies cross-train IT staff in a blend of mainframe and open systems skills.

          Migrating off the mainframe to a distributed architecture can provide an opportunity for younger workers to be exposed to mainframe skills. Legacy staff can develop a career path by learning new skills and automation tools for adapting mainframe applications to other systems.

          Formal training is in place for Boscov's IT professionals to learn the shared aspects between the mainframe, Linux and client/server architectures, and in the next 24 months developers will focus on the finer points of Linux and Java. COBOL programmers already are using IBM VisualAge Generator to minimise staff's need to understand Java to do their job. "We have to take steps to ensure that our workforce can cope with the new architecture, and take advantage of it," Roberts says.

          Like Boscov's, Volkswagen of America is planning to move to an IBM zSeries mainframe running Linux when the firm's R24 lease expires in October. Scott Aschenbach, computing services manager for gedas, Volkswagen's IT business unit in Auburn Hills, Michigan, expects that 10% of the company's 50 legacy IT pros could retire in the next decade.

          Aschenbach says it's difficult to find staffers who know mainframes. COBOL programmers are especially rare, despite availability from layoffs, he says.

          Fewer schools teach about COBOL and the OS/390 or how to use a 3270 terminal, but instead teach editing on a Windows or a Unix box, Aschenbach says.

          "They don't have the skills to create a file on my systems, and lack experience with a whole host of specialty tools that are used in the mainframe environment such as CA-7 scheduling application and CA-Easytrieve."

          It will take Volkswagen several years to perform the full migration while adding functionality to applications. During that time, Aschenbach will need lots of support staff. So, he's involving them in the transition and motivating them to upgrade their skills and stay on after the mainframe expires.

          People need to accept that there's going to be a shortage of mainframe skills and a need to migrate off the mainframe, he says.

          "It's one of those things where everyone knows that there is a problem but no one talks about it. They know that it's going to go at some point and it's just a matter of when and where."

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