Mainframe skills shortage five years off

Attention unemployed mainframe programmers and operators: Prospects are dim for landing a mainframe IT job in the immediate future.

But experts predicted last week that by about 2007, when ageing IT staffers are expected to begin retiring in large numbers, companies will be clamouring for your skills, especially if they include mainframe systems support experience and knowledge.

In other words, the much-touted mainframe skills shortage is still about five years off.

“It’s really more of a futuristic thing and not a current crisis,” said Kent Howell, manager of computer operations in the 400-person IT group at Illinois Power Co. in Decatur.

“What we’re looking at is an ageing staff of mainframe personnel” coupled with the prospect of maintaining legacy systems “for quite a number of years,” Howell said during a roundtable discussion on mainframe skills at last week’s American Federation of Computer Operations Management conference for enterprise data centre managers in Las Vegas. “And with that kind of problem, it’s never too early to start planning.”

Rather than hiring new employees, Illinois Power plans to refresh its mainframe expertise by teaching mainframe skills to younger employees already on staff and working in open systems.

“We’re also looking at salary issues to try and entice these people to keep an interest in the mainframe side,” Howell said. “Two years ago, we paid premiums for open-systems development skills. Now we’re starting to look at premiums for mainframes.”

But experts say that companies such as Illinois Power are definitely in the minority.

More than 90 per cent of 300 companies that have mainframe staffs said in a recent Meta Group Inc. survey that they have “zero strategy” for dealing with the diminishing pool of skilled mainframe workers. Stamford, Conn.-based Meta estimates that 55 per cent of IT workers with mainframe experience are over 50 years old.

“Most companies do a very poor job of managing and planning their skills base, especially their ageing skills base,” agreed Diane Tunick Morello, an analyst at Gartner Inc., also in Stamford. “Companies don’t realize they’re putting themselves at risk because they have a heavy part of their day-to-day business relying on skills not even being taught in schools any longer.”

Meanwhile, vendors see a huge market opportunity in such risk. For example, Sun Microsystems Inc. by no means expects users to abandon their multibillion-dollar investments in Cobol and other legacy applications, according to Don Whitehead, director of business and market development for Sun’s enterprise systems products group.

So Sun has adopted technology designed to port such applications to servers running its Solaris operating system.

“We’re preserving the ability to write Cobol code and use it in a Unix environment,” said Whitehead.