Original WSJ Article
The expedient mainframe talent strategy for chief information officers remains focused on retaining baby boomer staff and their institutional knowledge of COBOL, Fortran and Assembler. This approach is understandable. Over 90% of the world’s financial transactions continue to run on COBOL and 47% of mainframe technology workers are 50 years, or older, according to the 12th Annual Mainframe Research Study just released by software firm BMC.
This strategy is also flawed; analogous to navigating a car by looking in the rear view mirror.
To drive forward, CIOs must start now to rebalance the generational composition of their mainframe staff and prioritize the recruitment of Millennial and Generation Z workers over the retention of aging baby boomers. It will not be an easy task. The youth talent pool is shallow: the BMC study reports only 7% of mainframe technology workers are 30 years old or younger. Nor will it be done quickly. The mainframe’s albatross image as a “dinosaur” technology remains firmly attached. But do not be fooled. This legacy platform is far from extinct.
A recent IDC white paper props up the image of the mainframe. The report, The Business Value of the Connected Mainframe for Digital Transformation, addresses the appeal of the “connected mainframe” to operate the cost-efficient Linux operating system, run Java applications, enable customer-facing web services, support internal and external APIs and integrate mobile applications; features which could make mainframe careers more appealing to Millennials.
But significant talent pipeline challenges remain. Most notably, the absence of mainframe curriculum or four-year degree programs, at higher education institutions. Of 4,627 colleges and universities in America, only 74, or a miserly 1.5%, offer courses on mainframe technology, or enterprise computing. Marist College and Northern Illinois University are exceptions having developed comprehensive, degree-based programs in enterprise computing. Chief information officers in search of young mainframe talent should include both institutions in their campus recruiting efforts.
With colleges under pressure to teach employable skills, it is perplexing why more do not offer programs focused on enterprise computing. The market need is there. So is the compensation. Indeed.com claims “starting salaries for mainframe developers average $113,000 which is more than double the average starting salary for electrical engineers.”
International Business Machines Corp., which dominates the global market for mainframes with a 90% market share, has a vested interest in developing mainframe talent. The firm’s IBM Z Academic Initiative provides mainframe training to 1,000 academic institutions in 70 countries. A high profile component of the Z Academic Initiative is the IBM Master the Mainframe competition, now in its thirteenth year, which focuses on challenging young people to learn mainframe programming skills.
Don Resnik, a former IBM executive, recommends chief information officers sell the mainframe platform to Millennials as “extreme IT” because the mainframe is uniquely suited to securely and dependably solve the most important business–and societal–problems posed by artificial intelligence, data analytics, cyber security and blockchain.
Linking the mainframe to everyday occurrences is an approach deployed by Julie Baxter, vice president of support for CA Technologies Europe, Middle East and Africa region. She says, “once you explain to a Millennial their phones connect to a mainframe when they do their online shopping and powers most of what they do, and you talk about the skills crisis and the growing demand for talent, they generally start to pay attention.” Compuware, an enterprise software firm, addresses how Millennials perceive the mainframe in a video.
Mentorship programs designed to pair recently on-boarded Millennial mainframe workers with veteran baby boomers skilled in mainframe technology are also popular. Success here requires patience and insight. Bill Miller, president of BMC’s zSolutions division, says the company “offers a comprehensive two-year mentoring programming where we team up new recruits to work closely with seasoned mainframe technology workers.” Ashok Reddy, general manager for CA Technologies, says the firm’s mentoring program emphasizes “the connected nature of data”, an approach in sync with IDC’s “connected mainframe” concept.
Ken Harper, director and mainframe product leader at Ensono, a mainframe hybrid solutions company, opts for an artistic approach. “I liken it to how an artist can work in different mediums – watercolor, sculpture, oils,” he says. “If you are interested in and good at Java, HTML, scripting languages, Microsoft – anything like that, then you can apply those same concepts and talents to the mainframe medium.”
With only 7% of the current mainframe workforce under 30 years old, and 10,000 Americans turning age 65 every day between now and 2029, CIOs must start now to recruit younger technologists, pairing them with baby boomers to create an “Odd Couple” in the IT workforce.