Mainframe skills valuable

IT managers looking to cut labour costs during the ongoing recession might want to think twice before laying off any of their workers who have mainframe or data centre skills.

With mainframe shipments on the rise and legions of traditional mainframe IT workers nearing retirement age, technology managers last week said it’s becoming increasingly difficult and costly to replace employees who have deep experience in COBOL, CICS and other mainframe technologies.

For example, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario is shelling out 10 per cent to 15 per cent signing bonuses to new workers with mainframe skills. The Toronto-based board, which oversees workplace safety and workers’ compensation issues for the province of Ontario, also pays “hot skills” premiums to mainframe experts. That can boost their annual salaries by as much as 10 per cent, said David Londry, director of the board’s corporate information centre.

At the Automobile Club of Southern California, a Costa Mesa, California-based affiliate of Heathrow, Florida-based AAA (formerly known as the American Automobile Association), IT manager Bill Reinl said he’s using part of his annual training budget to bring younger workers up to speed on mainframe technologies.

And the skills crunch is only going to get worse, according to Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc. As part of preliminary results from a survey of 300 midsize and large companies, Meta last month said it found that 55 percent of IT workers with mainframe experience are over 50 years old.

A bigger problem is that more than 90 per cent of the companies that have mainframe staffs said in the survey that they have “zero strategy” for dealing with the diminishing pool of skilled workers, said Meta analyst Maria Schafer. Meanwhile, all indications are that legacy mainframe systems and applications not to mention new technologies such as IBM Corp.’s zSeries servers will be around long after those workers have retired.

Companies continue to add a total of about 5 billion lines of COBOL code annually to their data centre systems, according to Bill Ulrich, president of management consulting firm Tactical Strategy Group Inc. in Soquel, Calif. And IBM in January said its annual mainframe revenue grew last year for the first time since 1989.

Industries that are expected to be hit particularly hard by the mainframe skills shortage include telecommunications, banking and finance, insurance and government, all of which have huge installed bases of mainframe systems.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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