Mainframe IT skills are undergoing a renaissance. Over 600 colleges have joined IBM's multi-million pound programme to develop a new generation of mainframe administrators and programmers.
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As many mainframe staff approach retirement, IBM has been encouraging computer science undergraduates and graduates to learn mainframe skills through a university curriculum called the IBM Academic Initiative, which it introduced in 2004.
Students are trained by IBM engineers and have access to a dedicated mainframe where they can practice system administration, batch processing and script programming, and use software such as the DB/2 database and IBM's WebSphere Java application server in a mainframe environment.
Surrey University has been running an MSc module for the past three years, as part of IBM's Academic Initiative. Surrey was the first UK university to offer a mainframe module. To date, 20 students have competed the optional training module, says Lee Gillam, a lecturer at the university's department of computing.
Learning about the mainframe is more than just supporting legacy. "The course gives people enough of an overview to keep mainframe systems running and provides a solid background in business continuity, cloud computing concepts and virtualisation," says Gillam.
Elsewhere in Europe, the University of Karlsruhe in Germany and EPSI in France are working to introduce a full-year mainframe education programme. In Italy, La Banque Postale, Sogeti and IBM have created the zAcademy to offer a professional course on IBM System z technologies for the banking sector.
In the US, Bank of America has used the graduates of the IBM Academic Initiative to support its mainframe infrastructure. "Bank of America is building a new generation of talent to support our infrastructure. We have hired students from colleges and universities enrolled in IBM's Academic Initiative," says Kim Grim, senior vice-president, mainframe engineering at Bank of America.
Job prospects for mainframe administrators look promising, according to Trevor Eddolls, who runs the mainframe update blog and has been working in the mainframe business since 1979.
"Sixty per cent of business data is still stored on the mainframe so it is essential to have new people. Banks, airlines and many major companies run mainframes. Given the number of job seekers with hot skills such as Java, Oracle and Windows, in these recessionary times people with mainframe skills are almost guaranteed a job," he says.