Educational Initiatives Aim to Head Off Potential Skills Crisis Developing in the Mainframe World
Most people probably don’t even realize it, but the people who develop and maintain some highly important core technology infrastructure that runs on mainframes are quietly retiring from the workforce, and they’re not getting replaced. There is a host of reasons for this state of affairs, but the main one is that the types of skills this cadre possesses are undervalued — by companies that utilize them, recruiters who hire for them, and employees who might learn them but are discouraged by marketplace conditions and the attitudes of their peers.
For the most part, Millennials go after sexier jobs in areas like Web app development, leaving mainframe development to Baby Boomers, who are retiring in droves now. According to Redbooks, an IBM publication, if platform growth and retirement trends continue, the industry will be experiencing a deficit of mainframe administrators to the tune of some 84,000 people by 2020, despite an uptick in student participation in mainframe hackathons and developers’ enrolling in mainframe courses and events (reaching more than 45,000 developers in 2017). IBM is trying to fill this potential gap through traditional education, apprentice programs, reskilling, and cross-training.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 50,000 undergraduate degrees in computer science are conferred in the United States every year. And yet, few go into the mainframe business, despite the fact that most of the top banks, insurers, retailers, airlines, and credit-card companies rely on mainframes for their core operations.
IBM — which, with its Z systems line, is pretty much the sole survivor in mainframes — does what it can to promote mainframe education. In 2017, the firm “engaged over 45,000 developers and students through IBM Z virtual contests, academic courses, user groups, conferences, Tech Talks, Code Patterns and more,” according to company documents.
Also in 2017, a company-sponsored “first-ever mainframe-based global developer hackathon, Unchain the Frame,” pitted against each other 1,400 contestants building applications with Hyperledger Fabric (a Linux Foundation hosted blockchain framework), Docker (containerizing virtualization software), machine learning, and banking and retail APIs. This contest was intended to highlight the ease of developing on mainframes, illustrating for participants that languages and tools with which they were already familiar from other platforms could be used in the highly scalable, high-performance mainframe environment.
Through a global training partners program, IBM trained more than 27,000 students in IBM Z topics through some 225 mainframe courses. A “Master the Mainframe” global contest in 129 countries drew 17,000 student participants.
But even with all these programs, the company can’t do it alone. Enterprises, recruiters, and employees must realize the seriousness of the potential shortage and change both their attitudes and practices. To that end, IBM has created a strategy for companies to develop and retain what it calls “Talent for Z.” The strategy encourages firms that rely on mainframes to assess their skill needs, determine what types of candidates can address those needs, develop a plan to attract them, build a training program that supports successful career paths, and provide a positive environment so as to retain that talent.
Part of the problem of getting companies to pay attention to mainframe talent growth and retention is the vocabulary currently in circulation. All parties in this market tend to talk about “legacy systems,” which is freighted with connotations of last year’s discounted fashion rack. Better would be to talk about “mission critical systems that run strategic workloads,” a description that honors the importance of mainframes to many enterprises.
While people mostly unfamiliar with the recent history of mainframes tend to think of their programmers as working on COBOL programs to manage ancient human resources databases, today’s Z Systems address cutting-edge technologies such as pervasive encryption, machine learning, data virtualization, hybrid cloud, cognitive computing, blockchain, analytics, and others.
In order to attract the right kind of talent, enterprises can build academic relationships, develop internship programs, punch up the wording in employment ads, and generally bring an upbeat and positive tone to conversations about mainframes. To aid in this endeavor, IBM offers Z Academic Initiative schools, a Master the Mainframe Wall of Fame, client-faculty round tables, a jobs board, a talent-match pool, and Z skills overview presentations.
Rather than being relegated to the engine room, employees with mainframe skills should be getting messages from their organizations that they can look forward to opportunities for technical eminence and growth. In particular, attracting Millennials to the mainframe involves letting go of the requirements (often written by existing Boomer employees specifying their replacements) to know specific languages, programs, and platforms. Instead, employment ads should be simple, general, and favor the ability to learn new environments over experience with them.
Retention efforts should focus on things like assigning career mentors, fostering a positive and creative environment, hiring in pairs (at a minimum) to limit isolation, building a new-hire community, cultivating recent hires’ eminence and amplify their messaging, providing them leadership opportunities, sending them to conferences, hosting internal events, and deploying recent hires as recruiters.
There are examples of companies that have refocused their mainframe programs successfully. One such is Pacific Life Insurance Co. of Newport Beach, California, which wanted to deal with inevitable mainframe developer retirements and decrease its reliance on augmented staffing. It established a Mainframe Academy with support from LearnQuest to teach and mentor a new generation of IBM Z programmers. The program helped the financial services company fill retirees open slots with young, motivated talent.
According to Meredith Stowell, director of IBM Z Community Advocacy and ISV Success, the number one job for enterprises wishing to cultivate and retain their mainframe talent is to develop a strategy for the entire employment life cycle and the full spectrum of employees — from new hires who require nurturing and training, to mid-career staff in need of a skills refresh, to grizzled veterans who can be tapped for their knowledge and experience. Only then will enterprises that rely on the mainframe be in a position to address the future.