Mainframe Apprenticeships: Closing the Mainframe Skills Gap

As current mainframe professionals begin to retire, the industry faces a skills gap. But there is hope: IBM partnered with the Consumer Technology Association earlier this year to launch the CTA Apprenticeship Coalition to create thousands of new apprenticeships in 20 states. And IBM is not alone in its efforts.[1] Filling in those gaps and generating excitement about the mainframe and its future has become LEAD-IT Project Executive Director Dr. Cameron Seay’s calling.

As a former assistant professor of computer systems technology at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (A&T) State University, Seay says that few students are ever exposed to mainframe technology. There are few colleges and universities — including historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — offering the curricula to address those skills gaps. In fact, NC A&T State University is one of only a handful of universities where students can learn directly on a mainframe.

“The industry knows the need. Everybody who works in it is over age 50,” Seay says. “I know shops that have 80% of their people within five years of retirement. Some of them, it’s 100%. The need is acute.”[2] He explains, “The biggest challenge continues to be convincing the decision makers of organizations that we need to address a very serious skills shortage in this sector. They all are aware of the overall IT skills shortage, but few employers, or at least human resources departments, seem to be paying attention to the particularly acute need for mainframe skills.”

Seay says the message that should resonate with any student is that the mainframe sector is “a very level playing field that provides an abundance of opportunity no matter where you come from.” He adds, “This message resonates especially well with African Americans and women.”

Seay has taught mainframe at four public HBCUs, and 90% or more of the students have been African American. “Because of the demographics of these schools, an appreciable percentage (60%) have been the first in their family to obtain a bachelor’s degree. At NC A&T, a large percentage were from rural, economically challenged areas,” he explains. “Most of my students are hungry for success, and they work hard.”

The IT sector also benefits from women joining, beyond simply fulfilling a diversity goal. Seay points out, “Women who choose IT as a career are not easily intimidated by challenges,” making them a great asset.

How SHARE Became a Catalyst for Seay’s Work

Seay went to his first SHARE event in 2007 in San Diego. “I had never heard of SHARE before, and was amazed by the spectacle of [the event]. The following February I loaded up nine students in a van and drove from Durham, North Carolina, to Orlando, Florida, for the next SHARE event. It was the first time SHARE had seen so many college students from one school thatn anyone could remember,” he says. “It was quite an experience for the students and for me. The students were treated like rock stars. Several of them are still working in mainframe today.”

For more than a decade in academia, Seay has focused on the mainframe, and SHARE has played a central role in his efforts. “SHARE has opened many doors for me,” he says. Seay has attended sessions, sometimes once or twice per year, to improve his teaching, and hosted other sessions himself. “I’ve served on many discussion panels. This has kept me tightly plugged into the latest developments in mainframe and given me valuable insights on how to help my students get placed in jobs,” Seay says. “I’m proud to say I’ve helped many students get jobs in mainframe.”

When applying for a U.S. Department of Labor contract for NC A&T to build apprenticeship programs, Seay naturally included SHARE as a collaborator, and this has helped market the project and construct its website. IBM also established a mainframe apprenticeship program, the first of its kind within IBM, he says. Now, the company has over 10 disciplines with apprenticeships. “I’m very proud to have been a trailblazer in this area,” he adds.

Keys to Raising Mainframe Awareness Among Students

Seay says one of the biggest challenges for industry veterans is to accurately depict what the mainframe is and how it is important today, as well as how it will continue to be important in the future. “To them, it is so obvious that they have no idea how few people, especially students, are aware of its existence,” he explains. Mainframe veterans and educators need to showcase the platform’s cutting-edge technology if they expect young programmers to be interested in a mainframe career.

Tips to Engage Students in a Mainframe Career

  1. Illustrate how the mainframe is and will be in the foreseeable future
  2. Demonstrate how the mainframe remains a cutting-edge technology
  3. Highlight the functions mainframes have that no other platform has
  4. Demonstrate how working in the mainframe is not only challenging, but fun

Seay’s main takeaway as an educator is that for mainframe courses, students should feel like they’re part of a larger community. In many ways this is exactly how SHARE functions: as a community of knowledgeable experts working together to solve problems and execute mainframe functions in the most effective way. “Early in my teaching, I was much more confrontational and sarcastic with students than I should’ve been,” he says. “I learned over time how counterproductive this was. No matter the class, I always seek to build a community of expertise within a given domain. Mainframe lends itself to this method particularly well, because everyone in mainframe has to rely on the expertise of others.” Seay adds, “With mainframe, it’s more a matter of just becoming a better teacher, because I was successful in this space from my first class (which was taught mostly by IBM). This was more a function of the benefits of the mainframe space than me as an individual.”

Filling the Skills Gap Is the Goal

The NC A&T and IBM apprenticeship programs can help lead the way in filling the skills gap, as well as increase the number of women and minorities choosing IT careers. But there is more that can be done.

Seay emphasizes, “I cannot overstate how important it is to get 20-somethings engaged in this technology. We need more young mainframers.” Volunteering with SHARE not only can expose IT staff to new platforms, applications, and programs, but it is also “ground zero” for mainframe experience. “There are many larger conferences where mainframe is a focus, but nowhere else that I know of is it the focus,” he says. “SHARE is mainframe. My recommendation for anyone involved to any degree in mainframe is to get as deeply involved with SHARE as soon as possible. There’s nothing like it in the mainframe space.”




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