Out of context, "academic initiative" might sound like a school’s honors program, or a dismissive term for something of only theoretical, not practical, value. But when it’s the IBM System z Academic Initiative (AI), it’s safe to assume it connects the computer industry with relevant enterprise systems resources and skills.

The System z AI’s goal is simple: preparing for the retirement of the enterprise-computing baby boomer generation, those of us born 1946-64, whose careers followed mainframe evolution from System/360 through zEnterprise. For more than a decade, System z AI has combined global school enablement, a worldwide jobs board, a skills helpdesk and mainframe contests, with client services such as roundtables, career days and internships. This creates and nurtures an inclusive ecosystem introducing tens of thousands of career-oriented students to the mainframe mindset, moving them from basics to being qualified—certified—so they can take their places in diverse enterprise computing jobs and industries.

Industry Perspective: Generations Turn Over
Professor John C. Turchek, head of the Computer Information Systems Department at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, notes that competition for students in computer science, IT and management information systems is and will continue to be fierce. That’s particularly true in light of predictions of a 40 percent increase in computer-related occupations by 2020 with more than 2 million positions needing to be filled, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Not surprisingly, an AI survey of IBM customers and business partners placed a high priority on the need for mainframe application development and system programming skills, pointing to an increasingly urgent need to groom the next generation, especially as technologies such as big data, analytics, mobile and hybrid computing become pervasive.

To reach and link all stakeholders, IBM structured the Academic Initiative in 2003 as a partnership with educational institutions, industry, government and nonprofit organizations. For example, Robert Morris University is a model for other schools and industry to follow, having worked with local industry (PNC Bank, BNY Mellon, Highmark) building an excellent program which local industry values for recruiting new hires and retaining existing staff. IBM facilitates meetings, provides resources and enables educators while industry defines skill requirements and hires students.

Professor H. Paul Haiduk at West Texas A&M University agrees that employers must invest in schools partnered with the System z AI program for competitive reasons. Noting that recruiting has changed, Haiduk says employers can no longer swoop down at will and cherrypick students; instead, they must build long-term relationships. So AI emphasizes partnering clients and communities with "System z schools" via local roundtables, facilitating locating mainframe talent and internal training programs. In addition to North America, regional orientations and meetings have taken place in Turkey, China, Brazil, India and elsewhere. Dozens of offerings include initial classes such as “Introduction to the Mainframe—z/OS Basics,” multiple DB2 topics, programming language instruction, security, tuning, Linux and more.

Students, Teachers, Schools, Communities
Students compete for scholarships based on demonstrated excellence in enterprise computing coursework and plans for continued growth on the mainframe platform in their academic and professional careers. Learning isn’t just classroom time; it’s applied. For example, at the University of Southern California, 25 interdisciplinary teams of business and engineering students created new ways to use IBM Watson technology to solve real-world problems in a first-ever business-case competition sponsored by IBM. And at North Carolina State University, they’re building healthcare applications complying with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

IBM assists/enables using enterprise systems in multiple curricula—computer science, information systems, IT, business—by providing free computing access.

More than 1,000 schools use System z AI programs with many offering multiple courses, certification programs, minors and concentrations. Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., offers instructor-led online classes in both systems and application programming, permitting study—including labs, virtual classroom discussion and projects—at student convenience in seven certificate programs. About seven hundred students have represented almost a hundred businesses, ranging from Accenture SA to Wells Fargo. Throughout System z AI, students explore, learn and perform coursework in real mainframe environments with no need for locally installed and maintained systems. Communities of interest, such as Rational Developer for System z and COBOL, Enterprise Computing, SHARE and GUIDE SHARE Europe support learning and emphasize collaboration in ways modeling professional environments.

Not Just Academic
Professor Turchek has tracked projections for nine computer occupations requiring a bachelor's degree: computer programmers, data and network architects, software developers-application software, software developers-system software, computer support specialists, computer systems analysts, database administrators, network and computer systems administrators and information/Web/network security specialists.

He notes a disconnect between this tremendous demand and the supply of college graduates, since enrollments in the five types of computing degree programs peaked in the year 2000, with an estimated 50-75 percent decline since then, and computer science and information systems programs bottoming out around 2007. While these programs have seen modest increases since then, enrollments are nowhere near their 2000 levels. In short, there's huge demand and low supply of computing graduates.

This demand is echoed by a July 2013 report from Alexandria, Va.,-based TechServe Alliance, a collaboration of IT firms, clients, consultants and suppliers. It notes that U.S. IT employment reached another all-time high last year, with IT jobs growing dramatically year-to-year, with the pace accelerating.

Assistant Professor Cameron Seay of the Department of Computer Systems Technology, School of Technology, at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, describes the university’s mainframe program as thriving, with primary focus on IT with many courses in electronics. It includes 218 undergraduate and 84 graduate students. Undergraduates study networking, programming, database, project management and Linux, along with general courses in math and science. The four-course mainframe track covers introductory, intermediate and advanced mainframe operations, plus a z/VM class. There's one graduate-level mainframe course with three more coming, Seay says. Students are engaged by Linux on System z, zEnterprise features and scalability, and the potential for vast server consolidation.

His students have taken mainframe positions at IBM, BB&T, Boeing, USAA, Fidelity Investments, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Verizon and other enterprise sites. Seay notes that the program has changed the lives of dozens of students who have begun careers they didn't know existed when they started college. The college’s best students stand toe-to-toe with mainframe undergraduates anywhere, and justifiably take great pride in that, he adds. Mainframe is a permanent part of their culture, and students take it as a badge of honor being familiar with this important technology when so few other students are.

He particularly cites Dontrell Harris, a rising senior, who was among 28 part-three finalists in last year's Master the Mainframe contest. Almost 5,000 students competed and only a few made it as far as Harris did.

Enriching z/VM offerings, State University of New York at Binghamton’s mainframe courses are taught by z/VM developers and authors of IBM texts on z/VM systems, internals and programming. Taken as electives by seniors and graduate students, they are: “Introduction to the Mainframe: z/VM Basics,” “z/VM Advanced Topics and Techniques” and “System z Hardware Systems Management.”

Offered via Enginet, Binghamton’s distance-learning environment, these courses include hands-on labs with System z and elicit growing student interest. Plans are underway to expand topics covered in these z/VM courses, while such core courses could potentially become part of a new degree program. Academic Initiative participants interested in these courses remotely are welcome.

In a different and increasingly popular format, Marist College offered a comprehensive z/OS massive open online course (MOOC) from in July and August, covering:

• Enterprise computing
• Enterprise servers
• z/OS
• Data sets and related concepts
• TSO, ISPF and USS
• Batch
• Job Control Language
• Job Entry Subsystem

And in the Real World ...
IBM offers the System z Mastery test, a proficiency exam for entry-level system programmer tasks available at more than 5,000 Prometric sites around the world.

Professor Turchek notes that since 2005, being certified has earned computing professionals better pay, with the AI offering many opportunities for such achievement.

The System z Job Board lets employers post detailed job requirements for job-seekers of all experience levels to review and apply. This creates a global pool of talent specializing in mainframe technology, including everyone from students to experienced professionals, targeting reported shortages of qualified business analysts, data scientists, cyber-security specialists and mobile software engineers.

Following coursework and once on the job, SHARE's zNextGen project provides professional networking and ongoing skills enhancements.

Don Resnik, longtime IBM System z Academic Initiative and client skills lead, says there's no magic "skills pill" for employers: Clients must work at developing relationships with professors and winning students' hearts and minds, because competition for them will only increase.

There's already impressive and growing momentum, with more than 1,000 participating schools in 67 countries, 59,000-plus students from 33 countries entering mainframe contests, more than 4,000 students and 345 employers using the System z Jobs website. System z AI's priority is now driving clients to schools already teaching mainframe, and building a higher-quality curriculum to meet industry needs. This all emphasizes, strengthens and perpetuates the "mainframe mindset" necessary for effective enterprise computing. Resnik offers a briefing on the System z AI program via request to zSkills@us.ibm.com.

As the new mainframe generation takes hold, there’s ample room and reason for excitement. Numerous LinkedIn groups—along with many longstanding discussion lists—share intergenerational resources, wisdom and humor.

Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with and written about technology for decades. He can be contacted at destination.z@gabegold.com.