Thought Leadership: Getting Ahead of the Mainframe Skills Gap

Rob Gantz

By Rob Gantz, z System Operations Director

Much has been written and many analyses have been performed over the last several years regarding the shortage of mainframe skill sets in the industry. Most technology leaders have read the pundits’ perspective that lays out the reasoning for the skill set shortages, whether it be the lack of higher educational focus on these skill sets, the impeding retirement of the baby boomer generation or even the thought that the mainframe is not viewed as appealing to millennials for a variety of reasons. What we do know is that whatever the reason, the number of IT professionals with mainframe skill sets are dwindling.

According to a recent Compuware survey, they found that 61 percent of CIOs polled felt that the loss of people with mainframe skill sets was a primary concern of theirs. Nearly 40 percent of those CIOs admitted to not having formal plans in place to address the concern. This is a staggering number when you think about the potential impact that losing associates with these key skill sets can have: increasing operational costs, negatively impacting system availability and opening up a significant risk of not effectively being able to support the environment.

If your company falls into that 40 percent that do not have formal plans to address the growing skills gap, there is still time to get in ahead of that skills gap. It will take some time and effort, but the benefits may insulate you and your company from the negative impacts that skill shortages can have. To help jump start your effort,  I offer you a few approaches that may help.  

Establish relationships with local high schools, colleges and universities.
Developing meaningful relationships with your local educational institutions is not only good for business; it’s also good for the community. Building relationships with students, faculty and administrators puts your company in an excellent position to develop programs focused on encouraging and generating excitement for the mainframe. High school students, in general, have little to no exposure to a mainframe; their only exposure is likely through television and video games. There is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the power of enterprise computing to these students and the doors that having those skill sets provide them.  In addition, you have the opportunity influence curriculums and programs, encouraging the learning institution to instantiate programs focused on exposing the mainframe to their students. Offering to sponsor or facilitate the program for the institution reduces the administration overhead and risk for the school and enables your company to have a higher degree of influence on the students.  

Partner with external vendors and training providers.
There is a great resource already at your fingertips. The one thing that we all have in common is that fact that we have great vendors supporting the products that we have deployed in our environments. It is certainly in their best interest to ensure that the skill sets to support the technology that they provide are in abundance. Partnering with vendors to develop talent pipeline programs is an excellent option to get in front of the skills gap. Another alternative is to partner with IT training providers. There are many IT training providers that have a large array training courses and programs. However, only a select few have current mainframe-centric programs. Working with training vendors to develop or expand their offerings and then marketing these programs to IT professionals may be the catalyst necessary to attract IT professionals from other talent-saturated technologies. Bringing together training partners and local academic institutions may be an alternative method to both limit administration overhead for the educational institution and reduce the commitment of your company to acquire mainframe skilled talent.

Develop an internal training program.
An internal learning and development program can rapidly position your company for the future. There are multiple benefits to building an internal program outside of gaining the technical skill sets that you seek. Opportunities to groom future leaders, hand selecting top talent and establishing a culture of learning are a few of the benefits that can be realized and may be a great attraction for the growing millennial workforce when it comes to pursuing a future employer. Developing an internal program is not easy; it takes time, commitment, support and above all, the right talent in both trainer and trainees. A good amount of energy is required to create and sustain the materials needed to support an internal program. This is a great opportunity to leverage your current system programmers, providing them the opportunity to share the wealth of knowledge and experience that they have collected throughout their careers. This opportunity may also be reenergizing to those that have been recent mediocre performers or have been in a rut.

While there are multiple approaches to help get ahead of the mainframe skills gap, it is safe to say that remaining in the 40 percent of those companies that do not have formal plans to address the skills gap is not a great strategy moving forward. Implementing measures today greatly reduces potential for crisis in the future. While there is no impending doom or calendared date that mainframe skill sets will be extinct, the signs are upon us and the time to act is now.


Rob Gantz is currently the z System operations director for Nationwide Insurance. He has a background in z System infrastructure operations and system workload automation.

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