Retaining crucial skills

Before Kent Howell can retire, he needs to complete one more project for his employer: He must teach his co-workers the mainframe systems expertise he acquired in his 35 years of working in high-tech.

As manager of computer operations for Illinois Power Co. in Decatur, Howell has about three years before he retires to pass along his legacy knowledge to fellow staff members, who are trained primarily in client/server and distributed technologies.

“I don’t think it’s accurate to say mainframe skills will become extinct,” Howell says. “What is fair to say is that, based on the current academia environment, training in those skills will become rarer unless the trend is modified.”

Howell isn’t alone in his opinion. The Association for Computer Operations Management (AFCOM) last month announced an initiative designed to address mainframe skills and retiring IT managers. Established in 1981 and boasting more than 3,000 members, AFCOM is a trade association for data center professionals.

While AFCOM’s Data Center Institute recently introduced its Data Center Knowledge Initiative of training, technology and educational resources for companies facing the potential loss of mainframe skills, the problem has been on the minds of many for about two years.

“Despite the interest and growth in training for new distributed technologies, many large organizations continue to rely on mainframe-based systems and applications as mission-critical parts of their business,” says Brian Koma, vice-president of marketing for AFCOM. While he has no specific numbers, Koma says colleges and universities are offering fewer courses in mainframe and legacy systems management, and continue to develop their client/server and distributed technologies programs.

AFCOM partnered with Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to provide a quick resource to courses and degree programs in data center technologies, which include programming languages such as COBOL.

COBOL was developed and adopted in 1960 as the primary business application language on mainframes and minicomputers. There are an estimated 90,000 COBOL programmers today, with about 55 per cent of them nearing retirement in the next five to seven years, Meta Group says. Yet according to Meta Group, 60 per cent of hosted applications will continue to reside on the mainframe through the next decade, requiring legacy skills to support them.

Other skills in danger of becoming extinct are FORTRAN and PL/I. FORTRAN, developed in 1954 by IBM, was originally designed to express mathematical formulas, and PL/I also is a high-level IBM programming language introduced in 1964 with the System/360 series of mainframes. It was designed to combine the features of and eventually supplant COBOL and FORTRAN, which never happened.

Roger Norton, dean of computer science and mathematics at Marist, says 25 years ago educational institutions offered many programs to teach these skills, but today there’s no interest in learning the programs or in studying legacy systems. Marist is one of the few schools to offer courses supported by the Institute for Data Center Professionals, including undergraduate degrees and certification programs.

“The traditional training grounds are not producing new IT professionals with these skills,” Norton says. “We are working with AFCOM to ensure companies don’t lose their mainframe expertise with retiring employees.”

John Bardwell, data center director at Unisys West, a financial and IT consulting services firm in West Perth, Australia, says his search for an IBM mainframe professional is proving difficult.

“IBM mainframe systems programmers, DB2 database administrators and IBM operations analysts with (JCL) skills are the area’s most at-risk skills from my management perspective,” Bardwell says. He adds that finding applications professionals with COBOL and PL/1 skills also is a challenge.

Many IBM shops in Australia have lost some of their mainframe management workforce through retirement. Because of that, Bardwell’s company will pay “above-market rates for our at-risk skills.”

Unfortunately, most agree that client/server technologies and programming technologies such as C++, Java and Visual Basic do not overlap much with mainframe languages and management tools. But Bardwell and Howell say IT professionals familiar with working in a distributed computing environment can be trained to handle mainframes.

Bardwell’s staff has been cross-training its Tandem (now owned by HP) systems programmers in its Unix environment and vice versa for about 12 to 18 months. Unisys West also has implemented systems management software from BMC that can manage across multiple vendor platforms.

“It has the same operational look and feel as any other system, so technicians can work with the familiar interface,” Bardwell says. Vendors such as ASG, BMC and Cybermation participated in the AFCOM announcement detailing how their software products, which offer cross-platform monitoring, management and automation features, can help ease the burden when mainframe experts retire.

Howell says cross-training within the IT department, with staff from other company departments and partnering with peers in the industry to share knowledge and skills among companies, will go a long way toward preserving the expertise. Having been a part-time computer science teacher at a junior college, Howell also feels IT staff should be proactive and contact educational institutions in their area about adding more mainframe training programs to their curriculum.

Because the estimated effect of the shortage is not expected to occur for another five years, Howell says IT managers have some time to develop strategies and accept that they need people to support their reliable, stable and mission-critical networks and applications.

“Several years ago, we heard that the mainframe was dead and client/server technologies were the only thing that would exist by today. Experience shows us that is not the case,” Howell says. “People are realizing that it’s a misnomer to call mainframe skills legacy. Mainframes are not going away.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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