For many, the mainframe is the face of the technology industry.
Yet, it is the sexier cousins, such as cloud computing, software-as-a-service (SaaS) and mobile gaming apps that bathe in the media spotlight.
It is the programming languages that support them, such as Java and C++, that attract bright young developers. Writing applications for a mainframe somehow does not have the same cachet as working for a startup on the streets of Old Street or Hoxton.
The mainframe still lies at the heart of an enormous number of everyday processes.
Most of us may be unaware that we are transacting with a mainframe-based system when we check our bank accounts online, book a train ticket or request a quote from an energy provider.
In fact, although most wouldn’t realise it, the average person ‘touches’ a mainframe 12 to 14 times a day. This is less surprising when you consider that IBM mainframes can process 1.1 million customer transactions per second.
Mainframes are an essential tool to keep businesses, and society as a whole, running smoothly and efficiently.
But the industry has become aware of an impending speedbump in the road.
Companies are facing a growing mainframe skills crisis; the staff needed to maintain and manage these critical pieces of infrastructure are fast reaching retirement age and replacements are becoming increasingly difficult to find, while the current pipeline of talent may include experts in Java and SQL, few know much about COBOL.
Old mainframers never die, they retire with a good pension
A survey of 1,400 IT professionals by IBM Systems Magazine last year revealed that a whopping 85% of respondents agreed that a mainframe skills gap exists.
On average, respondents reported that 18% of their mainframe staff will be retiring in the next five years, taking decades of experience with them.
The reality is that among the largest banks, insurance companies, government agencies and manufacturing giants in the world, mainframe skills are a highly valued commodity.
As a result, the programmers possessing these skills have generally been treated generously by their employers.
As retirement age approaches, the opportunity to spend more time at a ski resort or a Caribbean beach frequently holds more attraction than continuing to work well past the required retirement age.
>See also: UMX champions the ‘software mainframe’
The problem may soon be exacerbated by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
Eastern Europe has traditionally represented a strong pipeline of IT talent for companies based in Britain, so any clampdown on immigration that follows the UK’s departure from the EU is likely to make the problem more acute.
Bridging the gap
One solution is for IT firms to partner with universities and colleges to give guidance as to what skills are needed in future employees.
Students need to be learning z/OS, WLM, SMP/E and RACF as well as data recovery, including recovery time and point objectives.
They also need to understand the differing levels of availability across disparate systems, so they can manage the deployment of applications on the correct system.
Being able to move bulk data and understand the ramifications of replicating data is also key.
>See also: The history of the mainframe (revisited)
In the meantime, new technologies are being developed that help to make mainframes programmable by someone whose skills are strictly 21st century.
These “ported tools” act as translators, allowing the use of languages such as Python, PERL or Java to programme a z/OS machine that might once have recognised only COBOL.
Many of these exist already, narrowing the skills gap and taking the pressure off organisations as they search for mainframe expertise.
With mainframe skills still in such high demand, IT workers who can demonstrate that they are equipped to handle the hardware are in a strong position when it comes to employment.
Even freshly graduated jobseekers can take their pick of jobs and command a far higher wage than their counterparts who lack mainframe expertise.
>See also: NEON breathes fresh air into the mainframe
Understanding COBOL and IBM’S JCL, and being able to interface supplier applications with mainframe systems, is likely to see you net a wage upwards of £50,000.
Bringing back the beards
88% of CIOs say they believe the mainframe will continue to be a key business asset over the next ten years.
The tools that make mainframe programming possible via the languages used by younger generation will continue to develop, and the economic realities of life may make the lucrative jobs offered by major corporations appear more attractive by comparison with with the risky world of the startup.
With a little more education and some help from the industry, we may soon see the savviest young developers heading back to the mainframe.
Sourced by Martyn Davies, director, product management at Rocket Software