AFCOM Warns on Mainframe Skills Crisis

Retirement the Biggest Threat

Believing mainframes will outlast the people who run them, industry group AFCOM is alerting the industry to a coming skills shortage.

AFCOM says most mainframe administrators are approaching retirement age, with few replacements waiting in the wings. Leonard Eckhaus, president of AFCOM, cites a Meta Group statistic indicating 55 percent of mainframe support personnel are 50 years or older. He says that with retiring workers and companies downsizing through early retirement programs, many mainframe-dependent enterprises could find themselves with no one to run their machines.

“If we don’t address this relatively soon, it’s going to become a crisis,” Eckhaus says. Although datacenters now include machines beyond mainframes, Eckhaus believes most enterprises will need mainframe personnel for years to come. “There are applications that are going to need the mainframe for the foreseeable future,” he says.

Eckhaus compares the impending mainframe skills crisis to another technological crisis in past years: Y2K. Like Y2K, which called for programmers familiar with legacy code to fix date issues, the mainframe skills crisis calls on people skilled in older platforms.

AFCOM is an association of data center professionals whose ranks include data center managers, executives and technical personnel. It publishes a magazine for its membership and hosts a twice-yearly conference on data center topics. Although its membership is not limited to mainframe users, most members work with the traditional IBM mainframe.

Eckhaus says the first step his organization is taking to alleviate the impending crisis is to raise awareness in the technical community of the shrinking pool of mainframe administrators. “We’re going to make sure a lot of information is coming out about it,” he says.

Some AFCOM members are already taking more direct steps to build the pool of mainframe skills. An Illinois utility is developing a program with the University of Illinois-Chicago to give students access to mainframe training and has also retrained about 150 computer professionals on the mainframe.

AFCOM itself plans to contact major universities in the hopes of adding mainframe topics to the curriculum. Eckhaus says most schools focus on Unix and Internet programming today, rather than traditional business computing. He believes part of this phenomenon is a result of the kinds of people attracted to high-tech fields – students interested in technology are attracted to cutting edge technology and would rather work with the latest-and-greatest, rather than time-tested machines.

Another factor limiting the number of young mainframe workers is the limited access students have to mainframes. Most computer science departments are based around Unix machines, so when students graduate they’re hired for Unix jobs.

Regardless, Eckhaus says there is an incentive for young people to gain mainframe experience. “Maybe people have to seek it out, but there’s going to be a real reward down the road for mainframe skills,” he says.

About the Author

Chris McConnell is Product and Technology Editor for Enterprise Systems.