How IT leaders can bridge the mainframe skills gap

By Praveen Kumar, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Asia Pacific at ASG Technologies

Several common phrases voiced as wisdom rattle through the technology industry today. Among them are these two that rose to prominence lately:

  • Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.
  • The output or service you want can be provided fast and cheap, cheap and topnotch, topnotch and fast — but not all three at the same time.

These serve as guides for the tech industry mainly in managing and investing in enterprise IT, but companies must also follow the same principles in upskilling and recruiting now and into the foreseeable future. With the accelerated rate of technological innovation today, it is no surprise that the gap to empower the talent pool grows ever wider. One particular area that needs attention is the mainframes.

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According to IBM, 92 out of 100 top global banks still rely on mainframes to host their core systems. Despite this, there is an apparent skills gap, which highlights how it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the staff necessary to service and support an enterprise’s mainframe, the packaged applications on it, and the bespoke applications built for the platform.

Why is there a mainframe skills gap?

The first IBM mainframe was introduced in 1964. It had since expanded and has now dominated the use of technology in enterprises in different industries. With all its capabilities and the substantial portion of global companies relying on it, it is indubitable that mainframes are here to stay — they can carry on for years and even decades. The number of people who maintain and support them, however, is unfortunately decreasing. IT professionals who started and developed their careers alongside the evolution mainframe are reaching the point where they have the option to stop working full-time (if at all) or to expect significant compensation commensurate with their experience and expertise. Depending on this demographic cohort as the sole source of mainframe expertise is a posture enterprises should not dare repeat — the consequences could shake up the IT ecosystem.

Further, there are fewer IT professionals in the next demographic cohort, Gen X, since they opted to focus on the compelling non-mainframe technologies (client-server, distributed, cloud) that emerged when they started their careers. They built expertise around these new technologies rather than compete against other professionals who had been in the mainframe landscape for around 10-30 years. As a result, the same people supporting the mainframe remained, while new additions to the workforce specialized in new developments from the rapid advancements of tech.

Given this and the increased media focus on continuous innovation, it is easy to see why Gen Xers were dissuaded from pursuing education and coursework related to mainframes. This inevitably led to fewer educational institutions offering classes on the topics — a negative feedback loop leading to a downward spiral with broad impact up until today.

Fortunately, many Gen Z IT professionals entering the workplace are showing the appetite and aptitude for positions supporting the mainframe, even despite the obstacles to getting a foundational education in mainframe. This generation sees a platform that supports all modern technologies and techniques, from Java to containers to cloud, while offering valued positions at large healthy enterprises. Being digital natives, they are eager to step forward and take on the challenges of the mainframe.

Filling the mainframe skills gap

Bridging the skills gap is no easy task, but it is urgent and necessary. Echoing the adages mentioned earlier, here are four recommendations for enterprise IT leaders aiming to fill the gap:

  1. Don’t limit your pool of candidates to experienced mainframe professionals. Seeking to replace departing mainframe professionals only with candidates that have identical skill sets and depth of experience is a losing game. The pool of candidates of that type will continue to decline and there is no turning back the hands of time.
  2. Strategize how you will invest in and enable next-gen recruits. As a necessary follow-up to the previous point, filling those positions with younger professionals requires investment and cannot be done cheap, quick, and well all at the same time. Skimping on one only increases the burden on the other two, and skimping on two or even three is a sure path to failure.
  3. Investment is needed in terms of funding for education. This begins with influencing colleges and universities to return mainframe coursework to the curriculum and includes offering attractive, secure opportunities to applicants. Time is required to help IT professionals gain proficiency. Expecting them to duplicate decades of experience from the start is naïve.
  4. IT managers must engage with emerging professionals. Leaders must frequently and thoughtfully guide these young workers to give them the best chance for success. They need to work with them to course-correct daily and focus on the quality of their work to empower them and ultimately encourage other aspiring IT professionals to consider working on mainframes.

Gen Zers start from a different time and perspective, have a different relationship with technology and therefore have different expectations for it. As such, independent software vendors play a crucial role in filling the mainframe skills gap as they support the needs of this new generation of professionals.

Mainframe product vendors must understand the expectations of these new users. To cater to their needs, providers must actively restructure their platforms in a way that corresponds to how they will interact with it, like liberating their user experience from the character-based legacy green screen and offering graphical point-and-click, drag-and-drop, touch-friendly interfaces. These interfaces must be free of time-and-place constraints, supporting full mobility and different form factors such as a tablet.

Despite the massive gap in the talent pool, it is notable that the new generation is keen on dipping into mainframe technology. But, of course, they need support from the leaders. For the industry to continue benefitting from the security, durability, and reliability of the mainframe, it needs to take proactive measures to ensure that there are enough professionals who can fill the shoes of the current mainframers.