Mixed Reviews for the Mainframe Market

What are the job and career opportunities for IT pros with primarily mainframe skills? Solid or dwindling, depending on who you ask.

The panelists: David Thewlis, deputy director of industry relations for standards at Share, an IBM large-systems user group; Larry Johnson, technical recruiter at Baldwin Forrester & Co., a San Francisco-based high-tech recruiting firm; and Renee M. Schneider, director of staffing for corporate information systems at Chicago-based Ameritech Corp.

The career outlook for mainframe professionals is decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, a high-tech recruiter in San Francisco reports that mainframe job openings are so scarce that eager applicants sent in three dozen résumés in two days for a single position.

On the other hand, the hiring manager at telecommunications giant Ameritech says she's having such a hard time finding mainframe professionals to run the company's giant billing systems that she's urging Chicago-area colleges to tailor their computer science courses to meet the company's needs.

It's true that companies still running their basic business programs on mainframes are finding that maintaining those legacy systems is increasingly difficult. The supply of information technology professionals with relevant skills continues to dwindle.

At the same time, though, no one is adopting mainframes for the first time, and more companies are moving aggressively off the mainframe toward client/server and Web-based databases.

Computerworld discussed employment prospects for people with mainframe skills with an IT hiring manager at a company reliant on mainframes, a director of a long-standing mainframe user group and an IT recruiter.

Here's the picture they painted of the future:

CW: What's the outlook in the near future for candidates with mainframe skills?

THEWLIS: A substantial number of companies with homegrown applications put in short-term Y2K fixes rather than converting to new applications, so their existing applications still need to be maintained. You're not going to see a lot of new companies running mainframes, although you will see companies [that are] already using mainframes finding new uses for them. Therefore, there are no huge growth prospects.

JOHNSON: Now that Y2K [has come and gone], mainframe people are out of work. I haven't had a mainframe [opening] in six months; they just aren't needed anymore. The people who do have positions aren't leaving because they know there's nothing else out there for them.

SCHNEIDER: I don't see hiring slowing significantly with the [new] year.

We've hired a significant number of people with mainframe skills [in the past] year, and we plan to continue because we have a massive billing system that runs off mainframes.

CW: How is the shifting market affecting pay rates?

THEWLIS: Now that the need for these skills is less urgent, I think companies will hire a few people on staff and let the consultants go. From that perspective, the wages may drop overall, [but] the people on staff won't see drops.

JOHNSON: [For contractors and consultants], I'm seeing hourly rates dropping back from $75 to $100 per hour to $30 to $40 per hour now that Y2K is no longer an issue.

SCHNEIDER: Our salary benchmarking surveys show that client/server people are only seeing salaries approximately 2 percent to 5 percent higher than the mainframe people. I don't anticipate that gap will grow much wider over the next three to five years.

CW: What career paths can IT staffers with these skills expect in the next couple of years?

THEWLIS: The new demand for these people will be in tying legacy applications to e-commerce and Web skills. People will find they're expected to be able to learn new skills and extend the application of the skills they already have.

JOHNSON: The skills translate easily into systems administration, program analysis or project management. Everybody is looking for systems administrators who make sure everything works the way it's supposed to.

SCHNEIDER: Architecture, project management and quality assurance are becoming more in demand. They can also climb up in the development ranks or get into database analysis.

CW: What other skills will be essential to have in tandem with mainframe skills to get ahead?

THEWLIS: More than 75 percent of the world's applications code is in Cobol, so it's not really going to go away anytime soon. But if somebody knows nothing but Cobol, it would be wise for them to learn another language.

JOHNSON: Enterprise JavaBeans, Oracle8, SAP and other new skills. Get into them even if you have to take a cut in salary or responsibility to do it.

SCHNEIDER: I'd tell people to acquire a multiple-platform background to build the strong conceptual and theoretical knowledge they need to survive and thrive long term. If they have a strong business background, they can become the hybrid that speaks to the IT community while interfacing with the business people as well.

CW: Where is this market headed, long term?

THEWLIS: I expect that five to 10 years from now, companies may find they can't get mainframe systems programmers and people who understand how to bridge existing mainframe apps with new technologies, because all those people will have retired.

JOHNSON: It's not going anywhere. If you've just gotten a degree in this, go back to school and demand a rebate. Do anything rather than continue working with this antiquated technology.

SCHNEIDER: I've been hearing dire predictions for a while, but there will still have to be systems around to handle the giant applications. I don't see our billing department, for example, breaking down into smaller departments and running on client/server systems. We just don't know yet how the mainframe will operate or how it will interface.

Fitter is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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