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LongEx Mainframe Quarterly - May 2011

opinion: Is there a Mainframe Skills Shortage?

Finding mainframe skills is a serious issue for mainframe sites and users. So serious, it is a major reason to migrate away from the mainframe. And yet there continues to be a debate about the availability of mainframe skills: the Mainframe Skills Shortage debate. Opinions range from "there is an acute shortage" to "what shortage?" So is there a shortage or not?

Why "Is There a Mainframe Skills Shortage" is a Silly Question.

Right from the start, any discussion of mainframe skills shortages is difficult because mainframe skills span an enormous spectrum. When most people talk about mainframe skills, they are thinking of applications programmers. But mainframe jobs include:

  • Operations.
  • Systems administration.
  • Database administration.
  • Network administration and support.
  • Solutions design and architect roles.
  • Security administration and security audit.
  • Help Desk.
  • Disaster Recovery.

And this doesn't cover it all. Mainframe skills are needed in so many other areas like data centre management, change management, mainframe project management, and business and process analysis.

Every mainframe job is a lot more than a one line description. Take applications programming. Sure, a vacancy will need skills in one or more programming languages. But you can bet that it also needs skills in application environments like CICS or Websphere Application Server, and database systems like DB2. And it doesn't stop there. Add in areas like coding tools and generators (say Cool:Gen or VisualAge Generator), source code management tools, and even change management tools. Top all that up with skills to open up legacy applications (Java, Websphere MQ, Websphere Application Server), and you have a huge potential skills matrix. And it can get even more complex.

The question also ignores geography. Mainframes have traditionally grouped together in clusters. For example, Australia's mainframes centre around Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. So it's not uncommon to see experienced mainframe people in more rural areas out of a job when their lone mainframe site is down-sized or outsourced. Let's not forget the level of skills. Almost all computing graduates have never even heard of a mainframe. So it takes a few years to get up to speed with a complex leviathan demanding, on average, a far deeper understanding than other platforms and programming environments.

So "is there a mainframe skills shortage"will never be a simple yes or no answer. Perhaps a better question is "Where, if any, are the mainframe skills shortages?"

The Skills Going Out

Walk into a mainframe team's area and the predominant hair colour will be grey. The average age of mainframe staff is far higher than it was 20 years ago - estimated to be as high as 50 by some. A CA survey in 2008 found that 72% of mainframe sites have mainframe staff eligible for retirement. Another problem is that many mainframe veterans are moving away from the mainframe to management, architect, recruitment or sales positions. For someone over 40 with a family or impending retirement, these positions offer more money, regular working hours (no more weekends and on-call), and a welcome culture change. In many cases mainframe experts get entrenched in a position, and find it difficult to find new challenges.

Mainframe veterans have seen their teams shrink in size while their responsibilities grow, and can feel unappreciated in large IT departments. In an environment where innovation, money and hype all go to other platforms and projects, it's easy to feel disillusioned and move on. In many sites, the responsibility of mainframe staff is limited to "keep it running, and don't spend any money".

The Skills Coming In

On the other side of the balance sheet, IBM has invested heavily in its Academic Initiative program to encourage universities to include mainframe topics and streams. And the figures look impressive: 50,000 students participating in over 643 schools to date. The mainframe user group Share have joined in the fight with their zNextGen program aimed at nurturing young talent.

But how many of these Academic Initiative students actually enter the mainframe workforce, and how many of those remain? In my experience, a lot of the hardy few graduates choosing a mainframe technical career find the first couple of years difficult, and quickly look to move back to more familiar waters. And there are jobs there waiting for them.

The Skills Needed

The good news is that the number of mainframe people needed has plummeted over the years. IBM is finishing up a five-year, $100 million project to make the task of programming and supporting a mainframe easier.

Mainframe migrations, consolidations and outsourcing have further reduced the number of mainframe technical staff needed. Not to mention supplying a fresh injection of experienced mainframe talent into the available skills pool.

Where Are the Skills Shortages?

All this doesn't answer the question. So let me put my in my five cents worth about my patch: Australia.

I see a mild shortage of experienced mainframe talent across the board, but this isn't biting deep. In general, all but niche mainframe vacancies continue to be filled, though the candidates are not as strong as they may have been 10-15 years ago. The Global Financial Crisis has helped out, keeping many retirement-aged mainframe staff at work for a few extra years.

Australia has a relatively small mainframe community, so any mainframe outsourcing or migration makes a noticeable improvement to the talent pool. Over the past two decades this has helped prevent any critical skills shortages. The past decade or two has seen a marked drop in the need for mainframe applications programmers, mostly COBOL programmers. Organisations such as Telstra and Qantas have off-shored much of this application programming to cheaper countries like India. Australian government departments, particularly Commonwealth departments, are now the main seekers of application skills. Help desk roles have followed a similar path.

Less technical roles such as security audit, strategic planning, project management and software sales have seen a major de-skilling in the mainframe area. Some consulting companies see this as an opportunity, and are beginning to advertise for general mainframe skills.

Systems and database skills have taken a different tack. Constant centralisation, outsourcing and migrations have teamed with a platform that is easier to manage to greatly reduce the numbers required. Because of this, almost no organisation in Australia has seen the need to train new DBAs or Systems Programmers. For example, 20 years ago I was the youngest Systems Programmer I knew. Today, I still am. These skills, particularly at the senior or elite level, are becoming hard to find.

With almost all Australian universities ignoring the mainframe, there is a serious lack of new mainframe talent across the board. Niche skills areas are also becoming harder to fill. Mainframe users are becoming more reliant on vendors and external organisations for the more difficult problems and projects that in the past would have been handled in-house.

Some companies would like to hire more mainframe staff, but are prevented by head-count and budget restrictions. Unfortunately, many mainframe users have no long term plans to attract, nurture and retain mainframe talent. They see their mainframe as a temporary resource that will be soon thrown away, even with no short or long term migration strategy. This can also be seen from the lack of regular mainframe-related courses scheduled by IBM, almost the only classroom mainframe course provider in Australia.

For my money this trend will continue. Mainframe migration and consolidation will continue, but at a much slower rate than in the past. The Commonwealth Government will continue to raise the retirement age, and offer other incentives to keep senior staff at work. Despite this, over the next decade mainframe resources across the board, particularly highly skilled and experienced DBAs and Systems Programmers, will be more difficult to find and catch. And unless more graduates can be attracted and trained in mainframe areas, mainframe skills will become the number one problem for any mainframe manager.

David Stephens

LongEx Quarterly is a quarterly eZine produced by Longpela Expertise. It provides Mainframe articles for management and technical experts. It is published every November, February, May and August.

The opinions in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of any other person or organisation. All trademarks, trade names, service marks and logos referenced in these articles belong to their respective companies.

Although Longpela Expertise may be paid by organisations reprinting our articles, all articles are independent. Longpela Expertise has not been paid money by any vendor or company to write any articles appearing in our e-zine.

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