Big Iron Skills Shortage Not as Big a Problem as Some Fear

Ann All

Despite being saddled with the stigma of being "old technology," the mainframe keeps on keeping on. Buoyed by four quarters of sales growth, mainframe king IBM has launched several initiatives designed to make the mainframe more palatable to young programmers, who have largely shunned Big Iron in favor of client-server technologies.


Big Blue also recently demonstrated its gear's ability to run a variety of non-traditional mainframe applications by consolidating nearly 4,000 servers in six locations onto about 30 mainframes running Linux.


While these moves may help convince companies to consider creating new apps for the mainframe, they don't do much to address the niggling issue of legacy applications created in COBOL. Computerworld recently put COBOL atop its list of 10 dead (or dying) computer skills.


Yet 62 percent of IT managers surveyed by Computerworld say they still actively use COBOL. This is a problem in light of the fact that lots of programmers versed in COBOL are expected to retire in the next decade.


What should companies do? First, don't panic, advises a Forrester Research analyst who authored a recent paper on coping with the forthcoming wave of Baby Boomer retirements. The Big Iron skills shortage isn't as severe as some folks may fear. COBOL programmers are in "ample" supply in North America, according to a CIO Insight story.


That's no excuse for inaction, however. Forrester offers aseven-step plan for ensuring that necessary mainframe skills don't vanish when senior programmers make like Elvis and permanently leave the building.


One suggestion from the list: Chart the age of key employees and their tenure on important apps, then average their ages. If the number is above 50, you have reason to worry now.


While outsourcing providers may be able to help fill a mainframe skills gap, the Forrester analyst says companies will likely find more COBOL programmers in Russia and Eastern Europe than in India or China.

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