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Why post-pandemic reskilling must focus on mainframes

A major contributing factor to UK-wide skills shortages is the significant number of people who have left the workforce since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic

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The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) indicates that 600,000 fewer people are employed now than at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, while a further 400,000 have become economically inactive. In fact, there are now 1.1 million fewer workers in the labour market than there would have been if pre-crisis trends had continued.

While this shortfall can partly be explained by young people choosing to continue in education, three-fifths of those exiting the labour market were older people.

But in a world in which so-called legacy systems, and particularly mainframes which have now been around for 70 years, are more widespread than you might think, this situation has inevitable skills implications. This is exacerbated by the fact that there is little focus in this area at university level and people under 30 rarely consider such machines “sexy” or tend to be unaware of just how important they are to many organisations. 

Such a situation is inevitably worrying for businesses in sectors where mainframes often have mission-critical transaction processing functions – such as financial services, government and aviation – meaning they would be unable to operate without them.

For example, a fourth-quarter 2020 update on mainframe usage by sole remaining manufacturer IBM revealed that 67 Fortune 100 enterprises – which includes 45 of the top 50 banks, eight of the top 10 telcos and seven of the top 10 retailers – still rely on such systems. In fact, says Big Blue, usage levels as measured by MIPS – a calculation based on raw speed – have jumped by 350% over the past 10 years.

Meanwhile, according to the results of systems management software provider BMC’s 2021 mainframe survey, which has input from 1,300 executives and technical professionals around the world, 92% of respondents consider the platform destined for long-term growth and expect it to host new workloads. 

Demand for mainframe skills increases

While just under one in five respondents may not anticipate increasing their financial outlay in this area, two-thirds plan to invest in new technologies, which include machine learning, artificial intelligence for IT operations (AIOps) and integration with other IT systems. Around 39% also consider application modernisation a top priority, with the most important programming language in this area being Cobol.

An important factor behind such planned investment, believes Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst of Constellation Research, is that many organisations are relying on a mix of cloud technology and mainframes to support their digital transformation efforts. Therefore, in his Why the mainframe is alive and thriving blog, Wang predicts that the “co-existence of mainframe, on-premise and cloud deployments will continue for at least the next decade”.

This means demand for mainframe skills is increasing at a time when ever-growing numbers of Baby Boomers and Generation Xers are retiring, a situation that has been going on for the past 10 years but has been accelerated by the pandemic. 

As a result, says Den Hudson, principal consultant and skills architect at online training platform Pluralsight, Cobol programmers – which of all mainframe roles are in highest demand – now command salaries of between £60,000 and £70,000 per annum, which is roughly the same as Python developers. But some employers are also paying contractors between £500 and £600 per day to maintain their systems. 

“There’s huge demand,” says Hudson. “Organisations may have taken their eye off the ball here over the last few years as the priority was digital and enabling people to connect with their day-to-day work, but the focus on mainframe skills is now returning.”

While Hudson says they have “not seen panic” about the skills situation yet, Cameron Jenkins, executive vice-president of mainframe migration specialist Modern Systems, an Advanced company, says he would describe many CEOs as “scared”.

Mainframe skills struggles

Jenkins cites what he claims is the not uncommon case of a US airline, whose core business applications ran on a mainframe looked after by a single systems administrator in his 70s. While the airline took no action as it assumed the machine “would continue to work in the same way it always had”, on retiring, the sysadmin made it clear to the CEO just how crucial it was to develop replacement skills. 

As a result, says Jenkins, the company was forced to bring the retiree back as a consultant for a “huge” fee to “train new people” and get the airline “out of a critical situation”.

Such an approach was necessary, he says, in a market where it has had to “scrabble around” for mainframe skills among its staff and in its current network. “Even recruiters are running out of people to tap, so it’s a daily task to find talent due to a general lack of resources, and we’re cobbling it together at best,” he says.

A key challenge here, Jenkins indicates, is that “young people, and even those in their 30s, don’t want to learn” about mainframes, and even if some can be persuaded to cross-train, it “doesn’t mean they’ll be highly effective in working with the technology, let alone the underlying business processes”.

To try to tackle the issue, the consultancy is doing everything from asking retirees to work under two-year contracts to sub-contracting skills from its systems integrator partners. It has also introduced an internal cross-training programme and advises other employers to do the same.

Hudson agrees that reskilling and internal hiring, perhaps by means of an online jobs marketplace, makes sense given current skills shortages. They suggest that retraining non-graduates can work very effectively, as can including mainframe skills in graduate rotation schemes.

But Misty Decker, mainframe and Cobol modernisation evangelist at enterprise software provider Micro Focus, believes a key problem faced by the mainframe industry is simply one of underinvestment, which leads to a failure to modernise systems, including applications and management tools.

The mainframe is not dead

On the skills side, while she acknowledges that mainframe expertise, such as Cobol programming, is taught “much less frequently” than in other areas, Decker points out that vendors, such as IBM and semiconductor and infrastructure software provider Broadcom, offer apprenticeships in the area. Courses are also available from some universities in areas where there is local demand, including the University of Arkansas, the state in which US retailer Walmart is based.

But Decker refutes the “myth” that young people are not interested in the mainframe, indicating it is more likely that “they don’t know it exists”. She likewise points out that the average age for professionals in the sector is mid-40s, a figure that has not changed for the past 20 years, implying that “while people may have left the industry, new people are coming in too”.

As a result, rather than simply buy into the idea that the mainframe is dead, a notion that has been talked about for the past 20 years or so, Decker believes it makes more sense to choose the right tool for the right job. For example, while cloud systems are best for running low- or no-value transactions and managing peaks in demand, she attests mainframes excel at speedy transaction processing where security is paramount. 

But despite IBM’s decision to launch a new Z Series mainframe later this year, Kevin Gallagher, IT managing consultant at organisational change consultancy 40C, is not convinced the market will survive indefinitely. He believes that, while such technology is likely to be supported for another decade or so, not least because many organisations take an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” stance, “it won’t last forever”.

“You’re not really going to get what you want from mainframe applications in the long term as they’re often not well integrated with other technology and it can be hard to get data out, which makes it difficult to do things in real time,” says Gallagher. “Skills will also become scarcer and it’ll be harder to keep the systems running, so people will have no choice but to move, driven by the skills situation and the ageing of the technology.”

Over the next decade or so, Gallagher expects most organisations to start migrating their often huge numbers of mainframe applications onto other systems one by one. This process will be more “like peeling an onion” than a big bang, he believes, as the majority “can’t just switch it off for fear of what might happen if they do”.

Hudson agrees. “Mainframe skills will always be here and as long as the incentives and salaries are there, people will still move into it. Most people don’t believe the mainframe will disappear any time soon – it’ll be here for at least the next 10 years,” they conclude.

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