Planning Skills

Reporting on skills shortages in the IT industry is generally something of a double-edged sword.

Reporting on skills shortages in the IT industry is generally something of a double-edged sword. For every placement firm or analyst who sees a lack of skilled professionals in a specific area, there are often a sizeable number of people with that very skill set looking for work.

A recent news item predicting a mainframe skills shortage that we ran in our twice-weekly Enterprise Strategies e-mail newsletter generated a strong response from readers. The president of an industry professional organization predicted a coming shortage; readers responded by saying, "Hello-o-o-o. What shortage? We're laying mainframe people off over here …"

The item came from comments made by Leonard Eckhaus, president of a 3,000-member organization for datacenter management professionals called AFCOM. The comments, as Eckhaus emphasized to us in a follow-up conversation, weren't intended to address what's happening in today's market, where the economic downturn is resulting in layoffs throughout IT. Rather, he intended to highlight what he sees as a coming trend.

I asked John Phelps, a VP and research director in hardware and operating systems at Gartner Research, if he sees a mainframe skills shortage coming for companies that depend on experienced IT professionals to run their largest computers. Phelps specializes in the mainframe and large systems markets, among other things. He said that large enterprises should be concerned and should plan carefully to make sure they'll have the workers they need. But he said it's also true that while lots of workers with certain skills (he cited COBOL as an example) are closing in on retirement age or are already there, the need for those skills is also lessening over time.

Phelps encourages large enterprises that depend on mainframe skills to strategize carefully to avoid a skills crunch. Firms should ask questions such as these, Phelps says: "What applications will be around for a long time? Which ones won't? Do you have [enough] people trained in COBOL? Who will you need [in the future]?"

Mainframe software firms like IBM are being smart, Phelps said, in gradually addressing one of the mainframe's biggest challenges: cost of maintenance. High-end mainframe programmers and administrators with years of experience aren't cheap, a fact that's helping drive changes in big systems software. Just as desktop and low-end server software has evolved to become friendlier and easier to administer and maintain, so has mainframe software. IBM, for example, has gradually added tools that make maintenance easier—and thus may enable companies to keep fewer pricey mainframe experts on board.

Phelps also pointed out that the knowledge drain that happens when older, highly trained and entrenched workers reach retirement age is a problem everywhere in the enterprise, not just in IT. It can happen anywhere business knowledge resides. "It's a potential problem [if you lose] anyone who understands the core applications, anyone who has business process knowledge," Phelps said.

Do you see a coming shortage in a particular skill, especially mainframes? How are you preparing your company to deal with it? Let me know at LBriggs@esj.com.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is the founding editor of MCP Magazine and the former senior editorial director of 101communications. In between world travels, she's a freelance technology writer based in San Diego, Calif.