Views on the Mainframe Skills Gap, Generation by Generation

Young IT professionals sometimes have a low opinion of the mainframe as a viable career opportunity. But, their opinions often change once they start a mainframe career and realize the technology’s relevance and potential.

To fill the mainframe skills gap, companies will need to help soon-to-be IT professionals reach that realization much sooner in their career search.

SHARE recently interviewed three current mainframe professionals and Rocket Software employees – recent college grad Lodewyk Westhuizen, four-year pro Kyle Beausoleil, and 21-year pro Jennifer Nelson – to gather generational views on the challenges of mainframe talent recruitment.

We found that all three shared the same skepticism about a long-term career in mainframe before they entered the field.

“I had never considered what role, if any, mainframes played in modern tech world,” Beausoleil said. “Because they are unaware that it exists, I don’t believe any college students have the ability to view the mainframe as any kind of career possibility.”

For Westhuizen, a personal experience competing in the IBM Master the Mainframe contest opened his eyes.

“After being exposed to the mainframe ecosystem, one realizes that it’s not a closed system running outdated technology,” said Westhuizen.

Before embarking on her mainframe career 21 years ago, Nelson also questioned its staying power, considering it an “archaic black box.” That’s changed.

“As I expanded my knowledge into other areas of the mainframe beyond DB2, I came to realize just how critical the mainframe really is,” Nelson said, adding that young IT professionals may not find a mainframe career appealing because they don’t “understand how pervasive the mainframe is in everything we do, from something as simple as retail to something so fundamental like banking.”

What Do Young IT Professionals Want?

To attract young IT professionals, the industry must demonstrate how a career in mainframe offers pathways to compelling industries, workday variety and career advancement.

“I believe that the next generation of employees, more than ever, considers the culture and how the company can help them accomplish their goals,” said Westhuizen. “I choose to pursue a career in the mainframe industry due to the lack of younger developers and because I realized that working on the mainframe doesn’t limit me to COBOL, REXX and JCL.”

Beausoleil had a similar revelation. “The thing that most surprised me, when ignoring the initial shock that there was a world I didn’t know existed, was that the mainframe has been relied upon so much without being a regular topic of discussion by my peers,” he said.

Variety is a big reason why a career in mainframes appeals to Nelson.

“The most important thing to know about the mainframe before jumping in is how multi-faceted it is,” she said. “You’re likely to switch areas of interest before settling on the one area that fascinates you most. So, if at first you don’t find a ‘love connection’ in your area of choice, your knowledge will still be applicable when you switch to another area of the mainframe.”

Communicating Mainframe’s Lasting Value

Young IT professionals need to know that there’s a future in mainframe, and that its unparalleled processing power makes it an important asset in the development of leading edge technologies like analytics, cloud, and machine learning. That will get them excited about a long-term career.

“More and more non-IT companies are adopting and developing their IT shops into becoming as data-savvy as their IT counterparts,” Nelson said. “With so much happening in the area of real-time analytics and machine learning, the mainframe is poised to be at the core of intelligent applications that are the hub of non-IT-based industries across the globe.”

Mainframe misconceptions are often self-inflicted by the industry. To get more people excited about working in mainframe, enterprises and mainframe professionals need to stop positioning it as an aging technology with limited use cases.

“The mainframe needs to be introduced as the culmination of the years of experience that it has,” Beausoleil explained. “Getting people to talk about it as it relates to the modern world will be a momentous task as it requires all of us to change the way we ourselves perceive it.”

Training and Education

Young IT professionals might be too intimidated to learn mainframe programming, which makes education a key barrier to filling the mainframe skills gap.

“The biggest challenge facing the mainframe isn’t technology-based. It’s human-based,” Nelson said. “It’s educating and enabling the next generation of skills to further adapt the mainframe to meet the ever-changing needs of the industries that rely upon the mainframe.”

In our next blog post, Nelson, Beausoleil and Westhuizen each share resources that have been helpful to them in their career, and that could help today’s young programmers get started on a fulfilling career in mainframe.

Student Career Day at SHARE Providence (August 6-11) will feature resources to help young IT pros prepare for a career in mainframe, including educational sessions, exclusive access to technology partners and the opportunity to connect with industry professionals. Register today.

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