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Addressing the IT Skills Shortage

Where will we find mainframe talent?

11/1/2011 10:10:28 AM | As an IT research analyst, I receive regular invites to industry events (because the event sponsors hope that I will share their stories with a broader audience). But my motivation for attending these events is to conduct IT research. I have no qualms about approaching IT professionals whom I don’t know (including teachers, students, IT practitioners, IT executives and vendors) and asking their opinions of various technologies, products and industry trends. And a high percentage of these individuals are usually willing to share their opinions (as long as I don’t mention their organizations in my research).

One of my favorite events to attend is the SHARE user group meeting held twice a year at various locations in the U.S. I enjoy this meeting so much because a large number of seasoned IT professionals attend and speak at this event. These people are easy to approach, very knowledgeable and very candid.

Recently, the SHARE executive community asked me if I would be willing to do a little digging into what is “top-of-mind” among regular SHARE attendees when it comes to IT professional skills development. I responded enthusiastically that I would love to do this—primarily because I’ve written several reports on the IT skills situation (where business leaders worldwide constantly lament that too few skilled IT individuals are available to meet demand). A good summary of the issue can be found in a report by Emily Stewart of the Australian Broadcast System.

The following is my assessment of IT skills in 2011—based on talking to business and government IT managers, teachers, students and vendors in the U.S.

Analyzing the Skills Shortage and Collaborating to Solve It
The argument goes something like this—with the aging of the U.S. population, so goes the aging of the IT workforce. As seasoned IT professionals reach retirement age and leave the workforce, they are being replaced by recent graduates who want to focus on “slick” new technologies rather than learn about traditional IT architectures—“old” technologies like the mainframe. So, as these youngsters look for work that will build their resume and impress their friends, finding mainframe talent is becoming increasingly difficult for IT hiring managers.

It's true that young IT professionals gravitate toward these new products and architectures. But at the same time, we have college graduates who are facing one of the worst economic climates in recent memory—an economic climate that isn’t expected to improve for quite some time. So the reality is that they need jobs. Further, anticipating the skills shortage in mainframe technologies, IT professors, IT business executives and IT vendors have been working together to mitigate the problem. They are collaborating to ensure skilled talent will be available to fill mainframe jobs—that the education and training provided in colleges and universities will match up with hiring requirements. Let’s look at a couple examples:

SHARE. According to the SHARE website, “SHARE Inc. is an independent association providing enterprise technology professionals with continuous education and training, valuable professional networking and effective industry influence.” The members include many Fortune 500 companies, universities and colleges, government organizations, and consultants. In partnership with IBM and IBM partners, one of SHARE’s primary goals is to nurture a new generation of IT professionals on the mainframe and supporting technologies, especially knowing that these technologies aren’t typically as widely taught in today’s schools. The zNextGen Project sponsored by SHARE, is a global user community specifically designed for prospective System z professionals with a wealth of available resources to support the development of System z IT skills.

In August 2011, SHARE sponsored its biannual event in Orlando, Fla., which was attended by more than 1,100 IT professionals. In a recent article, “Mainframe Technology in 2011 and Beyond; Who is Going to Run These Mainframes?” Cameron Seay, assistant professor at North Carolina A&T State University, had this comment about the event, “… I attended SHARE in Orlando along with two of my students. They each came away with a stack of cards about four inches thick from companies wanting to hire them. (As crazy as it sounds; if I had three times as many students I could place each and every one of them, and that’s just the fact of the matter.)” Additional insights can be found in the complete article.

IBM Academic Initiative System z. The IBM Academic Initiative System z program “seeks to ensure that the next generation of mainframe experts will be available to help more companies and organizations leverage the superior security, availability, scalability, and efficiency of the mainframe.” IBM partners with educators, students and customers by providing:
  1. Access to mainframes, courseware and training to colleges and universities
  2. Scholarships, academic contests and a jobs/internship database for students
  3. A forum for businesses to establish relationships with colleges and universities that offer mainframe-based curriculums and a résumé database of students with mainframe skills

Feedback from IT Managers, Students and Educators
Enterprise IT: Enterprise IT managers are telling me they’re doing a lot of “growing from the inside” rather than hiring from the outside. They constantly point to the need to “do more with less” (the new mantra of the 2010s in business)—and say they are finding ways to live up to this mantra. These IT managers are consolidating and virtualizing their environments (which makes management a little bit easier because few distributed systems and associated software needs to be managed). And they also claim to be using many of the advanced, automated management tools that are available on the market (these tools simplify and automated systems and software management—helping reduce the cost for human labor). And when IT managers are hiring, they are looking for younger talent—“gray-haired” IT professionals are perceived as being too expensive, and the goal is to replace these retirees with recent college graduates.

A February 2011 study conducted by SHARE titled, “CLOSING THE IT SKILLS GAP: 2011 SHARE Survey for Guiding University and College IT Agendas,” found that half of the companies surveyed hire new IT employees straight out of school, with relatively little actual work experience. The study also indicates a strong demand for mainframe skills. “In terms of platform-specific skills, companies seek applicants skilled in running two types of environments—database administration and mainframe administration. Specific mainframe administration skill areas also are in demand by a majority, or close to a majority, of companies in the survey—55 percent seek mainframe administrative skills, and half are in need of skills involving JCL, or Job Control Language.”

Students: Students (or more precisely recent graduates who now work in the field of IT) have pointed out how they have constantly built their skills in order to command greater salaries and ensure employment. Some of these students manage more advanced computing environments such as scale-up UNIX servers and/or mainframes—while others continue to work on x86 servers (which is what most were trained to use in college.) UNIX/mainframe-skilled individuals seem to have not only improved their scale-up systems experience, but they’ve also grown from a business acumen perspective by working on advanced run-the-enterprise projects that involve custom application design and business process flows. Demand for mainframe talent in combination with a tough job market will cause students to rethink their course choices, taking advantage of programs and courses offered through the IBM Academic Initiative (my 18-year-old son is one such example—he is pursuing a mainframe program at Marist College—more information is available at http://www.clabbyanalytics.com/uploads/Billy_Mainframe_Report.pdf).

Educators: Some of the professors I’ve talked to (I regularly attend the annual Enterprise Computing Conference at Marist College) tell me that they now are working more closely than ever with local business leaders to build the kind of skills those leaders require. This is a bit of a change in that university professors usually have taken an approach that builds computer generalists—and then those generalists build specialist skills once they are hired by a business. Based on the success of specific programs taught at the college level, businesses and universities are launching programs to encourage more high schools to offer computer science courses as part of the curriculum—so specialization can begin at the college level. IBM’s Academic Initiative extends resources to high schools including courses and roadmaps for teachers, as well as contests and games for students. IBM’s website has additional details.

This is in an effort to reverse a trend that suggests that fewer students are taking courses at a high school level. For example, in 2009 the Advanced Placement board canceled one of its computer science offerings due to low numbers.

By the same token, business leaders are looking for IT professionals that possess not only IT skills but business acumen as well, so many schools and universities are offering IT major programs that require classes in economics, accounting and marketing. In fact, the findings of the aforementioned February 2011 SHARE study indicate that, “about one-third of companies are seeking professionals and managers that can bridge the divides between IT departments and business leaders. Project management, analytics/business intelligence, and enterprise architecture skills are in demand by more than half of the companies surveyed.”

It’s Not Gloom and Doom
Much has been written about the IT skills shortage (particularly with respect to mainframe talent) and most of it has a tone of “gloom and doom.” In my opinion, collaborative efforts among businesses, universities, vendors (like IBM and its Academic Initiative) and independent industry organizations (SHARE) will forestall any crisis based on a talent shortfall. Continued feedback from businesses will ensure universities are teaching the right courses and students are learning the skills necessary to compete for available jobs. By extending programs to the high school level, skills will be developed sooner and our college graduates will be more specialized. And in the end—in a tough economy—college students will pursue the skills that will get the jobs.

Joe Clabby is president of Clabby Analytics.

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Dan O'Dea
Shortage? I see no shortage, at least not in the Northeast; the shortages here are in jobs available, not skills. There are a number of questionable comments you write about (not your comments, those of companies surveyed).

On the age issue, what companies seem to forget is that people don't retire at 60 any more; many work into their 70s. I certainly intend to do so, which gives me about 20 more years in the workforce. I see no reason why companies should concentrate on hiring only school graduates; if they hired one person like me for every three or four recent college graduates, that older person would bring the "kids" up to speed well before retirement. You can't replace experience and wisdom with book learning.

On the pay issue, I am satisfied with a salary commensurate with what others doing the same job are making; my salary demands are not linked to my age. Frankly, even a beginner's job is better than being unemployed.

The Share survey had this comment "...companies seek applicants skilled in running two types of environments — database administration and mainframe administration." I have both of these skill sets (both with over 20 years' experience) and have been out of work for nearly two years, with only two interviews requiring those skills over that time. Many companies are posting positions with extremely demanding requirements, and I am not getting called back because "your skill set is out of date."

Finally, the yoke of "do more with less" is wrong, both on a grammatical level and a logical level. On the former, you can't do more with less; you do more with fewer. More seriously, on the latter I can tell you from personal experience IT workers are getting fed up with being overworked. Both Mick's and Dianne's comments point to that. When I was laid off from IBM my colleagues remaining behind said, "Yeah, we are kind of envious of your leaving; you won't have to put up with the pressure any more." To be blunt, companies overwork people to meet artificial bottom-line mandates; executives' attitudes have gone from "do quality work" to "do a lot of whatever it is you do."

I applaud what Share is doing; when working I was always an active participant in Share, contributing to sessions and, occasionally, teaching them. I also applaud the partnership IBM is making with universities and colleges across the country. As I see it the problem lies with company hiring policies, not a skill shortage.
12/7/2011 7:32:58 AM
Mick..
My experience of the mainframe skills shortage is very different.

Of the 30 mainframe support staff made redundant from my workplace over the last couple of years, only 2 have been able to get new mainframe related roles. The rest have followed careers outside of IT, or are currently looking for work.

You'd think that good systems programmers with 20 years experience, or CICS/DB2 guys with 10 years would walk into new roles if there really was a skills shortage, but they don't - not even taking reduced rates.

There's a lot of focus on bringing graduates into the mainframe world, but there's already plenty of skilled people that could be taken on. It would be a much quicker return than training people up from scratch.

Mick..
12/5/2011 10:56:43 AM
Dianne
I am an experienced z/OS Systems Programmer. My position is being eliminated in the next couple of months as my company is moving it's last application off of the mainframe. I'm looking for a job in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs and I see no z/OS Systems Programmer jobs.

If there are no available jobs for those of us that have been working in the field for years then what is to become of the students?
12/6/2011 12:22:32 PM
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