Value of Mainframe Skills Rises as Job Openings Increase

Anyone who believes the mainframe is yesterday’s technology, should consider this: Plenty of mainframe tech jobs are currently available, and the number is bound to increase in coming years as longtime mainframe professionals reach retirement age. People with mainframe skills tend to stand out in the IT tech crowd, the experts say. And if that’s not enough, they stress that many mainframe jobs pay well into the six figures.

That was the message from a stream of speakers at the recent SHARE in Atlanta conference. Speakers acknowledged the mainframe has been overshadowed by glossy newer technologies, such as cloud computing and social networking, but continues to offer a viable career path for young would-be techs.

As it is, employers already face a significant challenge trying to fill mainframe openings. Six out of 10 employers in a recent SHARE survey reported they were looking to hire mainframe techs. The stat is no surprise when you consider that mainframe installed capacity has grown at 19 percent annually since 2003.

Regardless of that growth, the mainframe has fought an image problem since it was prematurely declared dead a couple of decades ago, as client/server systems – now being replaced by the cloud – became all the rage. For the better part of a decade, IBM has endeavored to change mainframe perceptions with an initiative to attract high school and college students to mainframe-focused careers. The efforts, which include partnerships with colleges and universities and the Master the Mainframe contest that challenges students to create mainframe-based solutions, have started to pay off, say IBM executives.

Ten years ago, said Ray Jones, IBM Vice President of System z Software, students would have dismissed any suggestion of learning mainframe skills as “not cool.” But that is changing as IBM has forged partnerships with hundreds of schools around the world.

Jones and the mainframe community are confident the change will continue, as legions of technicians proficient in the mainframe and z/OS near retirement age and will need to be replaced. Though a new generation of techs has started to wake up to mainframe opportunities, the mainframe crowd typically trends older. Fifty-three percent of z/OS techs have 20 or more years of experience, said Marc I. Smith, an IBM university ambassador in Texas.

To address the need, IBM has set up a website  to match resumes to mainframe job openings.

Meanwhile, through its System z Academic Initiative, the company partners with schools to provide them with a mainframe skills curriculum. The curriculum also is available to IBM clients wanting to keep training in-house, said Smith, who manages IBM’s Destination z web community and visits high schools and colleges regularly to excite interest in mainframe skills.

During a session at the recent SHARE in Atlanta conference, Smith touted the mainframe’s role in everyday life. Thirty-two Atlanta-area high school students packed the room to learn about mainframe opportunities. When Smith asked attendees:“When was the last time someone had interacted with a mainframe?”He heard answers such as “The 1980s.” That’s when he pointed out that, whenever you use a credit or debit card, a mainframe is doing the processing in the background.

And that’s only one example of the mainframe’s relevance to today’s technology. In a keynote address, Jones challenged attendees to “rethink the impossible” by sharing a series of examples of current mainframe use in cloud computing, Big Data analytics and social networking.

“I hope you agree with me that the death of the mainframe was a bit premature,” Jones said. “Unfortunately a lot of people bought into that.”

Those who haven’t include such IBM clients as Swiss Re, a re-insurance company that uses System z and DB2 Analytics Accelerator to reduce report processing from a few hours to less than one hour, allowing users to make quicker analyses and business decisions. Another client, the City of Honolulu, uses System z for a cloud computing/social networking solution, through which the city’s complete budget is published online.

Frank J. De Gilio, an IBM distinguished engineer, spent a fair amount of time at SHARE in Atlanta evangelizing the mainframe. Following one of his sessions, De Gilio addressed the need for mainframe skills, pointing out that mainframe expertise allows techs to stand out.  And if you understand how things work on the mainframe, he said, you develop a foundation for working on other computing platforms. Put it all together, and you are looking at building a very marketable resume.

Note: Some sessions at SHARE in Atlanta were broadcast over the web via SHARE Live!, including a session by De Gilio on setting a tech career path. Recordings of the sessions are available for purchase at:

Veteran tech journalist Pedro Pereira was on special assignment at SHARE in Atlanta.  Follow him on Twitter @EditPedro.

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