The Best New-Collar Job: Mainframe Technicians in High Demand

    School is just starting and many folks thinking about where to focus their education are asking about the technology segment, due to the massive success of cloud services, smartphones, and ecommerce (mostly Amazon). Some of these folks are considering IT, but what part of IT looks like it will survive the test of time, given the emergence of ever more compelling new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI)? In theory, you want a safe harbor, not one that remains connected to the technology advancements and not so incredibly disruptive that it puts your background at risk of becoming obsolete. I know personally the trauma of trying to figure out what you want to be as an adult, balancing excitement with the need to put food on the table for your family and avoiding the all too common layoffs in our industry. Since the first big tech firm I worked for was IBM, I figured that would be an interesting place to start.

    I spoke with IBM earlier this month and they pointed out that by 2020, there will be around 84,000 open mainframe positions worldwide. This year, Glassdoor listed around 7,800 mainframe positions in the U.S. only, and the positions are incredibly varied, ranging from programmers, analytics, networking, databases, API creation, and pretty much every aspect of IT. 

    The IBM Mainframe is one of the most powerful sustaining platforms in the technology market, and it has been far more stable than younger technologies. Currently, 93 of the top 100 banks use mainframes for mission-critical work, and three-fourths of the top world-wide enterprises use mainframes. What is particularly interesting is that 68 percent of the world’s production workloads, according to IBM, are on mainframes, but this represents only 6 percent of the total IT cost. Many of the folks currently working on mainframes are baby boomers who make up a lot of mainframe experts and are retiring at the rate of 10,000 a day, which is partially fueling the need for new talent on this platform.

    This need for mainframe-trained people is why IBM is funding a significant effort to make sure the skills are there when IBM, its partners and its customers need them. Many of these jobs may not require a four-year degree program, which is why IBM is driving an impressive apprenticeship program to put folks in those opening jobs.

    Let’s talk about the IBM Apprenticeship Program and other non-traditional programs this week.

    IBM Apprenticeship Program

    I tend to favor apprenticeships myself because with education in a vacuum, it generally becomes about grades and surviving classes rather than developing real skills. Apprenticeships place skills at the forefront and then use classes, which teach things in context of the actual job, to supplement the on-the-job training. This takes the student from theory as taught by people who either haven’t held a non-education job for decades or never held one, to application focused on the practical aspects of doing the job today. The result, in my opinion (and I have a degree in Manpower Management), is a better trained employee who can use more of what they learned than you’d get out of a more typical four-year university or college.

    IBM is also a huge believer in apprenticeship programs and has around 100 active apprentices in the company at the moment, crossing a variety of segments. Working with partners like LaunchCode, Per Scholas, and LearnQuest, other mainframe employers are expanding this apprenticeship program nationally to address the growing need for talent worldwide. We are also seeing this internationally. For example, there was an apprenticeship program launched in the UK that runs for three to four years, has classes one day a week (20 percent of the time), and has the students on the job for the rest of the week. This is primarily funded by government levies and it is being leveraged to build mainframe skills by Barclays in partnership with Manchester Met University.

    Another example is a continuing education program with Sacramento State University in California, in partnership with the state, specifically focused on trying to fill the hundreds of openings in the state government’s IT shop and other local employers with similar needs. Mainframe employees are often recruited out of another IBM program called “Master The Mainframe,” which captures people who have an interest in the platform and might want to pursue mainframe skills and rewards progress with prizes and recognition. (This is a good place to start if you are interested in this program.)

    It is interesting to note that an apprentice generally starts out making around 20 percent less than a fully trained practitioner but should receive raises during the training so that, when they complete it, they are on par with their trained peers. Given that most companies don’t give raises very often, this could be the fastest rate of salary increases that they’ll ever see.

    Wrapping Up: The Best “New-Collar” Job

    The term “new-collar job” was coined by Ginni Rometty at IBM and it applies to jobs that are in the middle between traditional white- and blue-collar categories. It applies here because you generally start with someone who doesn’t have a related degree and then, through the apprenticeship and other similar programs, you provide them with the needed practical skills to get the job done. This places the category above hourly blue-collar (most of these jobs are salaried) but below the University-educated white-collar category.

    But the reason mainframes may provide the best new-collar jobs is that they tend to be stable and exciting technology. This platform doesn’t seem to experience the disruptive advancements that obsolesce skills, yet it encompasses the vast variety of tasks, languages, and concepts driving much of the advancement in the industry. It seemingly has all the advantages and few of the disadvantages of other modern platforms. Even when it does experience change, there is far more effort placed (because these things are almost always mission critical) on non-disruptive updates and improvements. As a result, this class of product has fewer disruptions, fewer problems, fewer opportunities for your skills to become obsolete. This makes the platform exciting but not frightening, perhaps a better term would be more balanced, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t always something to learn; you’ll just likely have more time to learn it.

    The mainframe is a unique platform that bridges the past with the future by working on tried and true technology and applications but incorporating today’s IT breakthroughs to create new ways to deliver business value and differentiation with a company’s most valuable resource – its data.

    If you like stability along with your challenge, and folks generally prefer stability over disruptive change, working on the mainframe could be the best new-collar job in the market.


    Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm.  With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+

    Rob Enderle
    Rob Enderle
    As President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, Rob provides regional and global companies with guidance in how to create credible dialogue with the market, target customer needs, create new business opportunities, anticipate technology changes, select vendors and products, and practice zero dollar marketing. For over 20 years Rob has worked for and with companies like Microsoft, HP, IBM, Dell, Toshiba, Gateway, Sony, USAA, Texas Instruments, AMD, Intel, Credit Suisse First Boston, ROLM, and Siemens.

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