Business-technology managers are concerned about the dwindling number of skilled I.T. pros who can maintain and program mainframes.
But even if offshore outsourcing isn't the answer, domestic companies, including services organizations like IBM Global Services and EDS, are faced with a limited amount of mainframe-trained talent coming out of universities. Last year, IBM revealed a goal of helping put 20,000 new mainframe-educated students into the workplace by 2010 and has made a multimillion-dollar investment in an academic initiative to encourage mainframe studies, says Mike Bliss, director of zSeries technical support and marketing for IBM.
Over the past few years, Bliss has seen the number of universities offering mainframe courses increase from a couple dozen to around 150. IBM gives universities access to mainframes through "university hubs" around the world where multiple regional institutions can share resources. The company also offers training and complete curriculum modules to professors.
Convincing students to study mainframes in college, however, can prove difficult. Paul Horst, a software mainframe application developer for BMC Software Inc., heard a lot of other students question his career path while attending Northern Illinois University, a college with a full mainframe program, from 2000 to 2003.
"A lot of the focus in the academic world has gone away from the mainframe and toward object-oriented programming," Horst says. "I heard a lot of buzz from students attending other universities asking why I was going to NIU and studying mainframes. They'd say the mainframe was on its way out and I should really get getting into distributed applications and learning Java. But I could see where there will be a huge shortage of mainframe programmers within the next 10 years."
Joshua Smith, a mainframe programmer analyst at friction-management and ball-bearing maker Timken Co., found that even a little mainframe education can prove valuable. While attending Malone College in Canton, Ohio, he took the two mainframe courses as part of IBM's zScholars program.
"I didn't know anything about mainframes, and honestly I thought they were a dying breed," Smith says. "My fellow students said there wasn't much of a future to it."
After being laid off from his first job out of college, however, Smith was hired by Timken last year to work in the mainframe department with about 30 others, some with as many as 35 years of experience with mainframes.
"If I hadn't had the initial exposure to the mainframe, I wouldn't have even bothered applying for the job at Timken," he says. "Now I'm thinking mainframe will be a career because I don't see mainframes going away any time soon. This job is providing valuable experience whether I stay here for the long run or go somewhere else."