Debunking the Mainframe Brain Drain

Why don’t proponents of the "mainframe brain drain" hypothesis make similar claims about other costly technology niches?

It’s a familiar refrain: a crisis looms as aging mainframe professionals—some of them long past the traditional age of retirement—finally acquiesce to the rigors of time and aging and hang up their punch cards. At least that’s the refrain.

No less of an authority than Gartner Inc. recently endorsed just such a view, noting (in a report entitled "Impact of Generational IT Skill Shift on Legacy Applications") that a projected decrease in skilled mainframe technologists might be reason enough for some mainframe shops to transition away from Big Iron.

Not everyone takes such a dim view of mainframe futures, however.

Veteran industry watcher Joe Clabby, a principal with consultancy Clabby Analytics, is one such anti-doomsayer. For one thing, Clabby argues, Big Iron pessimists seem to be arguing from a reflexively anti-mainframe bias. If that isn’t the case, he challenges, why don’t proponents of the "mainframe brain drain" hypothesis make similar claims about other costly technology niches?

"[Gartner’s] logic, it seems, is that as baby-boomer mainframe coders and administrators leave the workforce over the next five to seven years, mainframe shops—particularly the smaller ones—are going to have great difficulty managing their mainframe environments or maintaining legacy COBOL code [--] so perhaps … executives should start planning to go to other platforms," he summarizes.

"Following this same logic, perhaps IT executives should also abandon projects that require database management due to the far more severe shortage of [DBAs]. … While they’re at it, maybe they should also abandon help desk projects due to the great, continuing shortage of help desk personnel—and let’s not forget the shortage of elemental hardware engineers."

Obviously, Clabby doesn’t believe database or helpdesk projects are quite so dispensable, and that’s precisely his point, he says. ""Since there are numerous critical shortages in computer skills across the board in the computer marketplace, singling out a mainframe skill shortage is patently wrong. Tosuggest that current mainframe users migrate from existing highly-available, highly-secure, highly-efficient mainframes to other ‘more modern’ platforms due to skill shortages … is just plain silly," he argues.

The Gartner report, for the record, suggests that the upcoming "generational shift" in favor of distributed IT skills might surpass Y2K in terms of the challenges it poses to enterprise application development groups.

Clabby clearly disagrees. He doesn’t downplay the significance of Gartner’s findings. Yes, some mainframe skills are in short supply, he concedes, but other skills (such as mainframe Java and zLinux skills) are abundantly available. Clabby says he formed his conclusions after speaking with IT executives, university professors, and IT recruiters. In other words, he stresses, he isn’t going off half-cocked, in stereotypical analyst fashion.

Clabby starts by explaining what he means by mainframe skills. He breaks down the Big Iron skill set into four distinct groups:

  • COBOL programmers (including those who develop and those who maintain COBOL code)
  • administrators and managers (those who oversee CICS, CICS, z/OS, or other mainframe systems management tasks)
  • operations and planning staff (business and design consultants, DBAs)
  • new application designers (who work with zLinux, Java, and other emerging skill sets).

On the COBOL front, Clabby says, there’s an oddity of sorts: reports of COBOL’s death, much less of a COBOL skills shortage, have been greatly exaggerated. "According to several IT managers I interviewed who are continuing to develop code in COBOL, there is no COBOL skills shortage!" he argues, conceding—at the same time—that "hundreds, if not thousands, of job listings for COBOL-skilled developers can be found on major Web employment sites."

So what gives? The answer probably won’t do much to warm the hearts of domestic Big Iron boosters: executives who cite COBOL skills shortages are typically—for one reason or another—prevented from outsourcing COBOL development work; IT executives who dismiss claims of a COBOL skills shortage are usually able to outsource their COBOL app dev needs. In other words, yes, there is a COBOL skills shortage here in the United States.

Surprisingly, Clabby doesn’t see this as a terminal problem, either. "[M]y research indicates that the most acute shortage is in the area of COBOL programming and maintenance, specifically in the United States. However, this situation could be easily alleviated by a change in current U.S. H1B immigration policy that restricts the number of skilled workers who can immigrate into the United States … such as skilled COBOL programmers in India and elsewhere," he maintains.

On the other hand, Clabby notes, there are a number of trends that suggest that mainframe skills are being replenished.

For one thing, the projected mass exodus of mainframe skills—which some industry watchers link to the impending retirement of the baby boom generations—is still another five to twelve years off. Nor will baby boomer retirements happen all at once, Clabby points out. They’ll take place in a phased manner, which—in tandem with other mainframe-friendly trends—should give the industry time enough to adjust to the shock.

Secondly, Clabby notes, "plenty of 35 to 50 year olds are already involved in managing mainframe environments today," and IBM itself is making a substantive effort to groom a new generation of even younger mainframe professionals with its zNextGen program.

There’s also the ease-of-use factor, Clabby says. "Mainframes are becoming easier and easier to manage. IBM is simplifying mainframe managementand is spending $100 million to give the mainframe a Windows-style, easy-to-usegraphical user interface," he points out. "IBM is not only making it possible for lesser-skilled individuals to manage mainframes but is also making mainframe management appeal to our next generation of Windows-born-and-raised managers and administrators."

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.