Mainframe skills head for the Jurassic age

Experts are predicting a mainframe skills shortage in five years time as ageing IT professionals begin retiring in large numbers.

While speakers at the American Federation of Computer Operations Management conference last week claim that by 2007 ageing IT professionals will retire and companies will be clamouring for those skills, Australian IT managers are divided on the subject.

Organiser of the 2002 Australian IT User Groups' Open Day in March and VTR Consulting managing director Vincent Teubler, said, "Unless someone sets up a Jurassic Park to look after the dear old [mainframe] dinosaurs, there will be a shortage in a few years".

"Just remember that dinosaurs roamed the earth for a long time before man was on the scene -- well over 100 million years. Mainframe technologies were around before many of the people currently in the IT market were even born and will likely still be around when most die of natural or unnatural causes," Teubler said.

A Meta Group survey found more than 90 per cent of 300 companies that have mainframe staff had "zero strategy" for dealing with the diminishing pool of skilled mainframe workers.

Meta Group estimates that 55 per cent of IT workers with mainframe experience are more than 50 years old.

Teubler said while IBM has traditionally dominated the mainframe market, demand today is continuing for skills in Cobol, PL/I, RPG and CICS.

"In Australia, these skills are typically found in the more experienced 50 years-plus IT professionals or the migrant population, for example, large quantities of Cobol code were sent to India during the Y2K implementation in order to meet skills in demand," he said.

"With the recent demise of Ansett and downsizing requirements within some large organisations, we have seen an increase in IT professionals on the market, seeking work within the mainframe environments."

Teubler said large organisations, which have large transaction processing requirements -- like banks, airlines and utilities -- still rely heavily on mainframe technologies. And he suggests until a technology is delivered that provides the same processing power, scalability and reliability, there will continue to be a demand for IT professionals who possess mainframe development, support and operational skills.

"With more than $2 trillion worth of mainframe applications in place with their centralised architecture, it is expected they are here to stay and may just be the wave of the future," Teubler said.

However, Australian Computer Society chief executive officer Dennis Furini, said the mainframe skills shortage is still 10 years away.

"Sure those with these skills are in their forties or fifties; there isn't big demand now because of the market downturn, but new systems being developed tend to go into Unix and distributed platforms," he said.

Furini said companies will try to "Retain their in-house people with those skills for the short term, but it will be a race between how soon these people retire and how soon companies transition their legacy systems to other platforms.

"I don't see any shortage of skills in the bread and butter applications like CICS, DB2, MVS, but there are shortages in more specialist areas like DOS/VSE, Huron and JESS III," Furini said.

An IT manager from a consulting company said he believes it is currently a tight market for mainframe specialists aged 40 and over.

He said mainframes will be phased out if both reasonable running costs cannot be maintained and replacement is feasible, it is simply a business decision. - Julia King contributed to this storyHigher educationIn the university sector, VTR Consulting's Teubler said universities have moved away from teaching mainframe technologies with curriculums favouring open technologies; however, some training providers still offer courses in the mainframe areas.

Dr Matt Warren, associate professor, school of computing and mathematics, Deakin University, believes the typical age profile of mainframe specialists is "anyone in their mid-thirties plus", adding it is hard to learn mainframe skills.

"Some universities, for example RMIT, still teach Cobol programming; many universities are phasing out these older technologies in order to teach new technologies," Dr Warren said.

Cobol programming, he said, is the main area of demand but the number of mainframe jobs is decreasing because of the replacement of legacy systems with newer operating systems.

"But I think there will still be a demand for the programming languages such as Cobol, because of the number of systems. Only in the area of Cobol will there be a skills shortage in around five years. Another point of view is that Cobol becomes a niche area and maybe the requirement is for a smaller number of organisations only to teach it," he said.

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