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3/20/2014
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Mainframe Brain Drain? Not In Heart Of Texas

The computer science department at Texas State University still offers a full course in COBOL programming, in part to help students differentiate themselves on the job market.

10 IT Job Titles We Miss
10 IT Job Titles We Miss
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CIOs looking for the next generation of mainframe IT talent might want to skip over MIT or Stanford and book a recruiting trip to San Marcos, Texas.

The reason is simple. The Department of Computer Information Systems and Quantitative Methods at Texas State University still teaches COBOL programming, with an ample dose of job control language (JCL) on the syllabus to boot. It's just a single class in a broad, software development-focused department. Yet it's remarkable because it's an uncommon find in university course catalogues these days.

Dr. David Wierschem, the department chairman, said that, even though there are a handful of US university programs focused on the mainframe, usually offered in conjunction with corporate partners, they're the exception, rather than the rule.

"There are only a few left in the country that are doing that," Wierschem said in a phone interview. "The fact that we still teach COBOL is perplexing to many people, but we see a demand, and we push it for our students to take as a differentiator."

Local employers along the I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio, such as the enterprise mobility platform company ClearBlade, have begun to reap the benefits of Texas State's COBOL offering. ClearBlade COO Brian Hall said it has hired 8-10 interns from the school during the last year, and three of them have gone on to become full-time employees. That's a considerable chunk for a company with fewer than 20 people. Also, ClearBlade's demand for mainframe skills isn't driven by internal systems. Rather, its Fortune 500 target market still depends heavily on the mainframe, which means ClearBlade developers must know how to ensure its platform plays nicely with customer systems.

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"Our core business is enabling mobile and IoT applications to gain access to core systems of record. Many if not most of those systems are running on big iron and that will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future," Hall told us in an email. "Finding iOS [and] Android developers [who] know what a CICS transaction is [is] more difficult than you might think."

There's a reason more universities aren't offering coursework in COBOL and other mainframe skills: There aren't enough employers pushing for it, even if they know they face a serious labor shortfall as a generation of mainframe experts hits retirement age. Though IBM encourages mainframe training for students with its academic initiative, Wierschem said that alone isn't enough to move the proverbial needle in universities.

"That's coming from the supply side of the software and the machines. It's not coming from the demand side of the employers." IBM and other vendors can offer as much free hardware, software, curriculum support, capital, and other resources as they like, but unless employers become more vocal about their mainframe-related needs, students won't be drawn to coursework designed to develop those skills. Wierschem is betting employers will change.

IBM supercomputers.(Source: Wikipedia)
IBM supercomputers.
(Source: Wikipedia)

"What I see happening is there are going to be several large, multinational companies that wake up one day and say, 'Doggone it, all of my COBOL programmers have retired or died.'" He's not being dramatic; Wierschem went on to relay a story a friend told him a year ago. "He said: 'You know, we're in a bad problem right now because, in the first draft, all of the COBOL programmers retired and we hired them back as consultants. The problem now is they're dying, and you cannot hire them back from death.' Unfortunately, businesses are not being aggressive in addressing this issue."

Even locally, ClearBlade is somewhat unique in its active, public hunt for young IT pros with mainframe skills. When he took over as department chairman, Wierschem worked with his IBM contacts to invite more than 100 Big Blue customers in the area to meet and discuss their mainframe training and hiring needs, with an eye toward possibly building Texas State's course offerings. Only three companies showed up, and those that did said the single COBOL course was enough; they would train new hires internally on other necessary skills.

Wierschem, like many others, predicts the mainframe will be a mainstay in many corporate environments for a long time to come. "If you look at the costs of what it took to put those systems in place, and how effective and reliable they are, to replace them is going to be huge investment in time and money," he said. "I do not see it going away any time soon."

Likewise, Wierschem says the demand for IT pros with mainframe skills not only exists today but will actually increase over time as more of the current workforce hits retirement age. However, until employers demand more mainframe employees, academic programs will be driven by faculty and student interests -- the students are the customers, after all -- and COBOL will get the short shrift.

"They're going to be teaching what the students are interested in and what's going to attract the students, which is the 'gee whiz, wow!' stuff," he said. "The mainframe is [perceived as] old and boring, so students don't want to take it. We're one of the few schools that actually try to push our students to do it, because we know there's going to be increasing demand for it."

Of the 23 graduating students in Wierschem's department last year, 14 had jobs lined up, eight had yet to start looking -- "which made me want to pull my hair out, but that's a separate issue" -- and one faced employment challenges as a deaf international student. Job placement depends on a lot of factors, but Wierschem says learning COBOL improves a young IT pro's chances, because the skill appears on fewer and fewer resumes.

"It's a differentiating factor for them. It really helps them get interviews," he said. "The fact that they have these skills, employers recognize value in that. They don't all go into working in COBOL [full time], but it gets them in the door."

There's a reward beyond a paycheck, too, for students and teachers alike. Wierschem said several students who'd struggled with the COBOL course -- often because it's different from the languages to which they're accustomed -- later landed internships and continued to use skills from the class in job settings.

"They're enjoying it, and it's kind of like a shock and a surprise to them that, hey, this is cool, and it's not what you think it is," Wierschem said. "It's kind of rewarding knowing that we're doing something right by helping guide students into that career path, because it's going to be a great opportunity for them because demand is only going to go up and up."

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Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses. View Full Bio

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danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
3/20/2014 | 3:13:00 PM
Re: Everything old is new again
This is interesting. There will obviously be a COBOL market that will pay highly for talent, but it is a very specialized subset. Fortune 500 companies will have to pay for this of course because they are tethered to it.

But I'm not sure that if I were a student today that I would want to concentrate on something like this. 
hho927
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hho927,
User Rank: Ninja
3/20/2014 | 3:00:33 PM
Re: Everything old is new again
IT world is a bit crazy. You have to catch the trend and make money.

Back then, a few of my friends took only html and got jobs with high salary. A few other took only Java and got hired. (No wonder Java is a mess and so are lots of websites) I stayed in school for 4 years and it surely doesn't pay off.
alexfiles01
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alexfiles01,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/20/2014 | 2:41:28 PM
Everything old is new again
So funny. In the late nineties and early aughts I was told to take COBOL and similarly older languages I'd learned off my resume, as they were no longer relevant. (This and similar advice re-routed my career path quite a bit, btw). Now it seems like they're back. Glad to see COBOL is still useful, and all the best to the students! 

P.S. Students, just be glad you don't have to learn it on punch cards ;-)
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