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How legacy technology is creating the next skills gap

Sharon Florentine | Aug. 12, 2015
Many IT pros with skills in Cobol and mainframes will be aging out of the workplace in the near future. How can CIOs address the inevitable skills shortage?

When's the last time you used technology based on COBOL? Or used a mainframe-based system? It's probably more recently than you think. Every time you book an airline ticket, check your savings account balance online, file your federal income taxes or request an insurance quote via the Web, you're relying on these legacy technologies, though many have been updated to better integrate with mobile technologies or provide a faster, more seamless user experience.

While legacy skills and technologies power much of the infrastructure we rely on daily, the talent behind their creation, development and maintenance is aging out, and a looming skills shortage threatens to leave companies stranded.

"CIOs are being caught flat-footed here. Many of the IT generation that have worked with these technologies for the last 30 years are aging out, and it's increasingly hard to find replacements," says Chris O'Malley, CEO of mainframe software company Compuware.

A major disconnect

A recent Compuware study of 350 global CIOs found that while 88 percent agree that the mainframe will continue to be a key business asset over the next decade, 75 percent of CIOs responding to the survey say today's crop of distributed application developers have little understanding of the importance of the mainframe. Seventy percent of CIOs say that a lack of documentation and mentoring will hinder effective knowledge transfer from the older generation of talent to the new, creating increased risk, according to the survey.

While 81 percent of CIOs reported that their mainframes continue to evolve — running new and different workloads than they did five years ago, like big data analysis — 4 out of 10 have not put formal plans in place to address the coming generational shift in mainframe — as their most experienced platform professionals retire.

"A lot of this talent has worked in these jobs for 30 years doing application development and writing tens of millions of lines of code. A lot of times the people that wrote the first line of code for a mainframe application are still working at that company. The economic crash in 2008 gave CIOs a little leeway; talent has hung on way past their expected retirement age, and exploited the need for their skills," says O'Malley. But this scenario can't go on forever, and CIOs have to address it soon.

It's a situation made even more risky because many mainframe applications are custom-built for their organizations, and are considered proprietary intellectual property. "That application code is unique to their business, and it's really difficult to train new talent on that unless it's done through mentoring, knowledge-sharing and training from inside your four walls," O'Malley says. Therefore, it's critical to put programs in place not only to attract and retain new talent, but to educate and train existing talent.


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