A Closer Look: N.C. A&T/U.S. Dept. of Labor Contract Impact

Following the recent announcement that North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T) has landed a $7.5 million contract with the U.S. Dept. of Labor to help increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities and women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, we caught up with Rocket Software’s Daniel Martin (Director for Industry Influence, SHARE® Board) to discuss the impact this will have on SHARE and the future of the mainframe.

SHARE: Please talk about the importance of this announcement as it relates to SHARE and how it aligns with the overall vision and mission of the organization.

Martin: Consider the reason the Registered Apprenticeship Program was created: to establish and maintain a necessary pipeline of skilled workers who can remain competitive and prosperous. Many businesses continue to refine recruitment strategies to ensure that women, communities of color and other groups are better-represented in the pipeline of prospective hires and among incoming employees. Increasing access to Registered Apprenticeship for underrepresented populations will require new strategies and approaches.

Participation is consistent with SHARE’s mission: to be the go-to source of enterprise IT education. For SHARE to have 21st-century viability, engagement with next-generation IT talent at all levels is extremely important.

SHARE is a large community that brings together people from a pretty broad swath of enterprise IT.  Our members are the system programmers, systems engineers and developers; they are the “boots-on-the-ground” individuals who are going hands-on with technology, getting 1s and 0s under their fingernails and getting it done.

In my view, SHARE is uniquely positioned to serve as vendor-neutral territory where people from an array of professions and a huge variety of personal backgrounds are able to come together in pursuit of a common goal: excellence in enterprise IT.

When you talk about SHARE’s participation in LEAD-IT and what is truly needed in order to make it a success, it can be defined through a three-pillar approach. Pillar one is all about Pipeline Development, Marketing & Outreach.  Pillar two is focused on the development of a Registered Apprenticeship program. Pillar three is all about executing that program. The place where SHARE can really bring unique expertise is with that second pillar.

We have people who can do things like help map out different occupations. They are able to quantify the job roles, define what the core competencies are for each of those roles, and then participate significantly in the development of an overall learning road map.

SHARE: Please describe how this announcement ties in with such SHARE initiatives as zNextGen®, among others.

Martin: Registered Apprenticeship itself is really all about getting people into the employment pipeline: Finding the people who need jobs, delivering training, helping them develop skills and getting them ready to enter the workforce.

Back when I started college, computer science programs were few and far between. The few that were declared “computer science” program majors were even fewer. My generation tended to come into the profession from math and engineering programs.

In this era, we seem to have a rule of thumb that says “if you don’t have at least a bachelor’s degree of a technical nature,” then you're very unlikely to get past the initial HR screening. As the demand for talent continues to grow, and as the cost of a formal education goes up, registered apprenticeship programs become increasingly important to helping talented individuals get into the workforce. 

The U.S. Department of Labor has one goal with its Registered Apprenticeship program:  Provide verifiable job skills and technical training in the form of a standardized set of credentials, which are portable from one employer to another.

Today, if you look at your typical bachelor’s or master’s degree, it’s a portable set of credentials that says you are trained in a particular field. With the Registered Apprenticeship program, that’s not unlike being able to achieve one of the licensing tiers defined for plumbers or electricians. These career paths have a verifiable set of credentials that have been vetted by other members of the profession.

I think it is important to note that we are not saying that with this program you can “fast track” the equivalent of a formal education, or that a formal education is not valuable.  That is not the case. What this provides is potential for the individual to grow into more formalized training and be positioned for success going forward.

SHARE: Looking bigger picture, what makes this announcement so important to future talent development for mainframe computers.

Martin: SHARE regularly participates in discussions around what is colloquially referred to as a “mainframe skills gap” or what some call “the graying of the workforce.”  Participating in development of a Registered Apprenticeship program is another way that SHARE can deliver value to our Members and to professionals as a whole.

People who discuss the mainframe as a deprecated architecture that is no longer relevant to the industry are failing to pay attention.

Consider the volume of transactions that is driven on a daily basis through this platform. Every time you touch an ATM, every time you swipe a credit card … the big players in the industry tend to be retail, banking and insurance.  It may not be glamorous on first inspection, but these are absolutely mission-critical transactions — ones you cannot afford to have go offline.  Nobody thinks payroll is glamorous, but *everybody* cares if it isn’t done right and on time.

As we move forward, I think the current skills gap is present in part because as formal computer science programs sprouted, they were focused on what was readily accessible for educational purposes — which means a non-mainframe architecture.  There is a reason why the x86 platform has managed to prosper and grow: It was there and highly accessible to the people who were doing skills training. The industry has spent a lot of the last 30-35 years working to mature that architecture and get it to a point where it is solid enough to mount large-scale enterprises on. 

This announcement refutes the perception that the mainframe is not important or is going away. It is mission critical and the industry needs more trained individuals in order continue to be successful.

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