Thinking Outside the Box to Bridge the Mainframe Skills Gap

By Andrew Grzywacz

For decades, mainframes have been the cornerstone for countless organizations’ IT operations – and that’s not a trend expected to end anytime soon. Just the opposite: 88 percent of CIOs polled in a recent survey said they expect mainframes to remain a “key business asset” going forward, with 81 percent adding that mainframes have evolved in just the last five years, taking on new tasks like big data analysis to keep pace with the times.

What isn’t keeping pace with the times, though, are the mainframe experts themselves. While the technology may be evolving, IT personnel with mainframe expertise are gradually aging out of the industry as they begin to enter retirement. But while there may be a skills gap emerging between legacy personnel and new hires, it’s not something that has gone unnoticed or ignored by the mainframe world. On the contrary, CIOs are working hard to make sure that fresh IT personnel are armed with the tools they need in order to minimize any skills gap and ensure a smooth transition between retiring mainframe professionals and their successors.

The key to bridging this gap, naturally, is to ramp up efforts to educate younger workers – Millennials today, but soon Generation Z as well – on mainframe use. Doing so requires some out-of-the-box thinking, though. Legacy technologies like mainframes and COBOL are being phased out of university education in favor of more in-demand and newer languages like Linux or Java. So to accommodate this impending skills shortage, CIOs will have to invest in new solutions that make use of these newer languages in order to intuitively onboard graduates and young professionals that have little or no practical mainframe experience.

Developing new software tools to simplify mainframe use is one way to move forward. As Chris O’Malley, the CEO of Compuware, tells CIO.com, enabling developers to write apps in Java or C++ (languages that they are more immediately familiar with) that are designed to work with COBOL ensures that what today’s new IT personnel are learning is still applicable to mainframe use. 

Another solution would be one of the driving goals behind SHARE’s Assembler Bootcamp: that is, to give new, young professionals the chance to revisit lesser-known, but foundational programming languages like Assembler in order to provide them with a more robust understanding of mainframes. This two-pronged approach ensures that there are new and equally essential opportunities available for new IT professionals who don’t have a background in mainframe so that they can better understand that world all the same.

It’s also important that present and future IT professionals are able to surround themselves with a network of mainframe systems programmers and experts, who can then be allowed to pass the torch – so to speak – of mainframe skills and best practices to the next generation. As mainframes continue to evolve further into the 21st century, it’s essential that our IT managers are able to evolve with them, not only bringing their own unique skills to the table but pairing them with the expertise of our current mainframe professionals to get the best of both worlds.

That’s the mission statement of SHARE’s zNextGen, a 1,000-member strong, worldwide user-driven community of z System professionals dedicated to cultivating skills and expediting the development paths of their peers. Join today to get on the cutting edge of mainframe operations.

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