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Why it’s time to learn COBOL

Paul Rubens | April 4, 2016
COBOL offers the promise of job security and above-average pay. Even some of the cool kids are doing it.

"When I was in college 30 years ago COBOL was declared dead, but it's still going strong and it's still a very good language."

So says Leon Kappelman, a professor of information systems at the University of North Texas (UNT). And he certainly appears right about the half-century old programming language going strong: There are still hundreds of billions of lines of COBOL code in use today by banks, insurance companies and other organizations, and COBOL is still used somewhere in a large proportion of all business transactions.

But very few universities still teach COBOL, which means the population of skilled COBOL developers is aging rapidly. As an increasing number of COBOL developers reach retirement age, a shortage of programmers with COBOL skills is inevitable.

Learning COBOL would seem to be a sensible career move. That's because it offers the prospect of plentiful work, and thanks to a shortage in supply, skilled COBOL programmers should be able to command premium rates for their skills.

Professor Kappelman says undergrads at UNT are offered two electives in mainframe COBOL, and these prove financially rewarding almost immediately. "Students that take them tend to earn about $10,000 per year more starting out than those that don't," he says.

He adds that the demand for COBOL developers will not disappear because there is no business case for large organizations to replace their legacy COBOL applications. That means a career in COBOL offers great job security.

But, inevitably, there are downsides, he warns. "The potential for career advancement could be limited, so you get a lot of job security – but it could get boring."

Will COBOL lead to cash?

Aside from Kappelman's observations, there's not much evidence that COBOL developers command elevated salaries dues to a shortage of supply  –  yet.  But Geoff Webb, a vice president at  Micro Focus, a  company that provides software and consultancy services to help update  legacy systems, expects COBOL rates to start rising gradually. "With Y2K projects lots of companies needed COBOL skills, so the sudden scramble led to a spike in pay,” he says. "We won't see a sharp spike like that again, but it's very likely that there will be upwards pressure on pay in the future."  

An obvious question you should ask if you are considering learning COBOL is what kind of COBOL work will you do? More to the point, will COBOL work be boring, as Kappelman suggests?

The answer, it seems, is that some, but not all, could be dull. Webb says that there will always be a need for people with COBOL skills to maintain existing code. "There are always updates that need doing: You may have a payroll application that needs to be modified slightly," he says.  "It won't require a massive amount of work, but the changes will need to be done regularly."


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