CIOs threatened with looming mainframe skills shortage

A study led by Compuware has highlighted the need for CIOs to deal with an impending skills shortage in mainframe development staff, or risk losing invaluable expertise in the future.

According to the study, many CIOs are currently unprepared to attract and train graduates to continue the use of mainframe application systems. 46 percent of the 500 international CIOs involved in the study said that there are no plans to address mainframe developer shortages.

With mainframe applications critical to business, there is a concern that the complex knowledge needed to run mainframe applications is being lost as many of the staff involved in creating mainframes are reaching retirement.

Business may be supporting the move into cloud computing at a record pace, but there is a shortfall in the numbers of adequately trained staff, a “looming” problem that needs to be addressed, says European mainframe director at Compuware, Neil Richards.

“It is not a case of if it will impact you, it is more a case of when it will,”  Richards told TechEye. “Our research showed more 71 percent CIOs are really concerned about the looming skills shortage. Because the applications are very complex, with millions of lines of code, when you lose some of the experience – how do they replace them and do so quickly?”

With systems first implemented decades ago in many cases, there is a real danger of the expertise leaving along with certain members of technical staff.

“These critical applications, they were built thirty or forty plus years ago, so the people who coded and understand them are the people who are coming up to retirement,” Richards says. “That is the challenge – that is why more than half of the companies were saying they have a challenge to respond to the ever changing demands and of the business.

“As a business wants the IT to be more agile this is putting more pressure on mainframe applications.”

With more and more complex services being run from mainframes, the workload required needs to increase. Despite the problems facing mainframe development, Richards believes that there is also a “renaissance” in applications, and this is making the need to ensure there are adequate levels of expertise available with legacy systems which demand new uses.

“What we are seeing is first your traditional mainframe workloads are being expanded and so there are more transactions going through the application,” he said. “For example a credit card application produces much available data online.”

One of the problems is attracting a new generation of workers, and there is a risk of continuing to deter a generation of potential employees if mainframes are not modernised.

“The tools a mainframe developer uses on a daily basis, ISPF, is a green screen which isn’t graphical,” he said. “Kids of today are brought up with iPads and easy to use graphical computers, and that is what they expect when they graduate from school.

“So when they are first faced with a menu driven ‘green screen’ it looks like something that was built thirty years ago, which of course it was! University students trained in IT are people taught newer ways of working, so they are not as attracted to working on mainframes.”

However, the main problem Richards points to is the lack of funding in mainframes, which has led to less staff being hired and less training.

He says that the mainframe space has been hurt by ten to fifteen years of massive cost reduction drives, and these have seen a shortage of people who understand applications actually being hired.  Companies have been reducing headcounts or outsourcing and this has had a knock on effect. In Richards’ words: “It is not just about attracting workers, it is about training them to deal with applications.”

Essentially, Richards believes that companies and organisations need to be more aware of how and when to adequately replace them by quantifying the problem.

“It sounds like a big problem but it is not insurmountable,” he said. “You just need a plan in place.”