Older technologies not yet obsolete

Despite an approaching mass retire-off of IT workers with experience in such less-than-sexy areas as COBOL and mainframes, industry watchers say most companies will look for middleware programs before they add middle-aged programmers.

A recent Meta Group Inc. survey south of the border found that more than 90 per cent of 300 companies that have mainframe staffs said that they have “zero strategy” for dealing with the diminishing pool of skilled mainframe workers. Additionally, Meta estimated that 55 per cent of IT workers with mainframe experience are over 50 years old.

In response to this coming skills gap, a few organizations, including the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario, have added mainframe operators to the list of

“hot skills” for which they pay a salary premium. Despite this, Rick Neilson, a Calgary-based HR analyst and consultant said that these companies are in the minority.

“Most companies do a very poor job of managing and planning their skills base, especially their ageing skills base,” said Neilson. “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.”

In fact, Canadian universities and colleges were virtually ignoring such “obsolete” skills as COBOL and or various mainframe command languages as long ago as the late ’80s, said several CS students from that era.

“In our first year we were basically given half a one-term course where we were introduced to CMS – IBM’s dinosaur of mainframe operating system – and a brief introduction to COBOL, and that couple of weeks was pretty much it,” said Wesley Nelson, a Toronto-based senior software architect who studied CS and electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo from 1987 to 1992.

“I didn’t get any sense that these (technologies) were even still used until my first co-op work term where I was put in front of a mainframe at IBM where every employee got their e-mail – such as it was – through a mainframe system. To give you an idea of the dearth of skills that they had even then, in my second term there I ended up teaching a mainframe programming course in JCL and PL/1 to some of their full-time people,” Nelson said.

Another former CS student said that his encounters with COBOL at the University of Toronto were the tedious equivalent to the two mandatory gym and woodshop classes he had to take in ninth grade. Now 10 years out of school and a senior systems planner with a mid-level Canadian insurance company, Jamie, who asked that his last name be withheld, said the attrition of skills has come up in meetings, but no one seemed overly concerned about it.

“We certainly don’t have a plan in place, but I can tell you that ideally in five to 10 years we’d like to have all of those old legacy systems replaced. Then, streamlined, Web-enabled ones that we need anyway will basically eliminate our need for these skills about the same time these COBOL/mainframe guys get really hard to find,” Jamie said.

He also said that since his organization already mostly uses middleware even to program their AS/400s, it makes more sense to wrap the really old technologies that they still need in a layer of application development software and largely abstract away the machine itself.

But for these companies that will need some actual COBOL or mainframe problem-solvers to make their fancy new middleware work, Neilson does see some promising opportunities for chronically undervalued older IT workers.

“It would not surprise me one bit if we start to see some boutique ‘obsolete technologies’ consulting firms start to appear. When the inevitable clamour starts for these skills – much like the Y2K thing – it will be a great chance for these wizened guys who got pushed out in the ’90s to show up as outside contractors for a tonne of money.”