Recently I had the pleasure of attending my first ever SHARE Conference, and not only attend but led a panel discussion on how companies can find the mainframe skills to keep your company running for the next several decades as baby-boomers that built the critical infrastructure and applications are retiring. It turned out to be quite the hot topic, as there were several other sessions addressing the same mainframe skills gap, and how companies can get a leg up on attracting and retaining talent. As many companies are still limiting travel to conferences, I thought I would try to summarize what I heard to share with companies that were not able to attend and share some of the programs that might help.
What Education is necessary?
One of the common discussion items was what are you looking for in a mainframe employee? Is a four-year degree a requirement? A four-year degree specifically in an IT major? Do they need to have mainframe training as part of that four-year degree? COBOL? I’m a huge advocate for universities teaching mainframe, that’s still where most companies recruit, but not every company has a university in their backyard teaching mainframe, and not every person has the desire or opportunity to get a four-year degree. Many companies now use online profiling tools that weed out candidates before even having a chance to talk with a human. In the environment that we are in, that practice seems to really eliminate some great candidates. I talk about some options below where you can look for candidates if you are open to considering non-traditional routes.
Let me share a couple of stories. Many of you know Kyle Charlet, he is CTO for IBM Z Software and Distinguished Engineer, he is responsible for much of the Z Modernization strategy. Earlier this year he gave the keynote address for an event where we were educating students on the platform, and he shared a little of his background, including the fact that he had no mainframe education before starting at IBM. Would you want to miss out of the next Kyle because of a profiling tool? Another example is Laticia Carrow, another member of our panel, who had a powerful story to tell. Laticia was a hairdresser for most of her career, but a couple years ago she took the opportunity to retrain on the mainframe and is now a valuable and productive employee at DDC IT Services. Her story is a great example of why companies should look at their recruiting processes to consider non-traditional candidates. Read an interview with Laticia here to get her full story.
COBOL, IT’S JUST A LANGUAGE. Students probably learn 5-10 languages these days, it’s an easily learnable skill. Look at the person, are they eager to learn, motivated and work well with people? Those are the things to look for instead of specific technical skills. Instead of COBOL classes, I would prefer that universities focus on the whole mainframe Ecosystem, there are so many exciting things happening outside COBOL that should get students excited about working on the mainframe.
Engage those Universities!
When I think back to when I went through college, we had a mainframe on campus, but to use it we had to punch cards, pray you didn’t drop them, and wait several hours for a run to find out you had a typo. Thankfully students today don’t deal with that, and probably don’t even know what a card punch looks like. Many Universities discontinued their mainframe programs from back then because the cost of maintaining a mainframe on campus was just cost-prohibitive as budget cuts hit. Unfortunately, what we’ve found from talking with several Universities, is they are not aware of the need, because their perception is like many people outside our community, that everything is going to cloud and the mainframe is going away. At a recent event a student pointedly asked, “Why haven’t I heard about the mainframe?” That’s why we need the zSystems Community to help engage Universities. IBM can tell them that the mainframe is still relevant, but until companies that are willing to hire their students tell them, it’s difficult to get traction. But if we can help open the door, IBM is happy to walk through with us.
In my previous job and current job, I was lucky to have the support of my superiors to go out and engage with students, attend ACM meetings, talk directly with classes, and work with IBM on scheduling Career Connection events, so students and employers can get connected. By working directly with universities, we kept that pipeline alive and well, and as a result didn’t face the challenges that many companies report having. Of course, we were lucky enough to have Illinois State University and Northern Illinois University close, both of which have long-standing mainframe programs. Tal Parmenter from Illinois State University did join our panel and shared some background on their program, and I shared some slides from Geoffrey Decker from Northern Illinois University about their program. But there are many more universities still teaching mainframe, I’m sure many of you are aware of what Dr. Cameron Seay is accomplishing out east, the University of North Texas also has a top-notch program, and Marist College of course where IBM hosts the mainframe that other Universities use.
Key to what IBM is offering is the IBM Z Xplore platform that modernized and replaced their Master the Mainframe program. By utilizing this platform, that is completely free for universities and students, students around the world can access a mainframe (dare we say cloud) that is hosted at Marist College in New York and earn badges and prizes that they can then use on their resume to demonstrate their proficiency. Instructors are relieved of the need to provide exercises because IBM provides them and is constantly adding new exercises for different technologies to keep it modern and exciting. With the budget constraints that universities are under, getting all of this for free should be very attractive. And for the record, they also love guest speakers that can come to class and share real world stories about working on the mainframe.
Another great way to get your company name in front of them? Invest in them! Many companies have programs with universities where they have a permanent on-campus presence, or they help financially support the programs as a sponsor and help bring in speakers. I can guarantee that if students come in and see your company name every day and see that you are willing to invest in their education to learn the mainframe ecosystem, that will raise your profile to them and increase your chances of recruiting them. They could even do internships/co-ops during the school year that way, which in my mind is the absolute best way for students and companies to learn about each other before a full-time employment.
What other Training options are available?
We are lucky that alternatives exist today that didn’t just a few years back. As always, companies have the alternative of reskilling existing employees that want a new challenge, and there are training services available that can help. Two of those companies that are always present at mainframe Conferences and have deep mainframe knowledge include Interskill and ProTech, but there are certainly others also.
It was a pleasure to have Shelly Meierarend, IBM Z and LinuxONE Client Academic Initiative Skills Leader, join our panel discussion to share information about the IBM zSystems Apprenticeship Program that IBM is teaming with Franklin Apprenticeships on. I wish we could have recorded her talk to share the, but they have already placed over 100 eager candidates into mainframe positions at companies that have contacted them with this need.
Another of the sessions talking about this topic was led by several employees from Broadcom that are also focused on helping companies find mainframe skills. They discussed the new Broadcom Mainframe Vitality Program, which is very similar to the above-mentioned IBM program and provides another avenue for clients of Broadcom to find mainframe skills. The Vitality Training is a comprehensive instructor led program that teaches Mainframe Foundations, System Programmer Foundations and ends with Broadcom Product Training. If you are a Broadcom customer, you should reach out to David Bond – Vitality Program Lead, for additional details on how they can help you.
How to win and retain an applicant?
This was probably the most interesting set of discussions of the week, because as we face a crisis in hiring really in IT in general, top applicants will likely emerge with a list of offers to compare, so how can you win? Factors such as money and benefits are of course still there, but in many situations are not as important as workplace flexibility and culture. The ability to work remotely has become a huge factor for people that don’t want to or can’t relocate for various reasons.
Another interesting factor that was mentioned several times was attitude towards the mainframe. If you are a company that is investing in and modernizing your use of the mainframe, you will certainly be able to attract and retain new employees that are interested in the mainframe easier than a company that is just trying to keep the wheels on while you move to the cloud. People want interesting and exciting work and will go elsewhere if needed. It’s so much easier to move jobs these days than it was before, so you need to keep the job interesting and challenging, and provide opportunities for growth, or someone else will.
How can I help?
One last story, Anna McKee is a relatively new mainframer, two time Master the Mainframe winner, and she was also on our SHARE panel and talked about how she almost didn’t take a job on the mainframe because she kept hearing it was going away. Then she found out how much of the world-wide economy was still dependent on the technology that most of us take for granted and don’t even know is running many things you do. Luckily, she found out in time and is today part of the mainframe Community. It’s easy for students to hear about AWS and Cloud, but we need more companies to go share their stories of mainframe successes with students, talk about the modern mainframe, the security, the AI, the modern interfaces, the open-source adoption, and be part of the solution for keeping the zskills pipeline vibrant.
If you’d like to participate in or discuss the events we are holding at universities to promote zSystems, or learn more about TeamSWAMI’s offerings, please reach out to me [email protected].