IBM lifts lid on latest bid to halt mainframe skill slips

Workforce aging, systems still mission-critical ... plus Big Blue looking out for its bread and butter

IBM is pinning its hopes on some fresh initiatives – the Mainframe Skills Council and the IBM Z Mainframe Skills Depot – to address a shortage of engineers who have big iron expertise .

Big Blue revealed the Mainframe Skills Council at the SHARE conference in Orlando, Florida this week, describing it as a forum to bring together organizations with an interest in sustaining a skilled workforce for the mainframe platform.

This can include clients, industry partners, academia, user groups, and pretty much anyone interested in mainframe skills development, IBM explained.

Among the forum's initial members, IBM lists Broadcom, the Academic Mainframe Consortium, Albany State University, DNB Bank, HoGent University, M&T Bank, Northern Illinois University, Rocket Software, SHARE, and 21CS software.

Broadcom may have recently acquired virtualization outfit VMware, but it previously assimilated Computer Associates – a key player in the mainframe software market.

"The mainframe community has been working to close the mainframe generational skills gap and we've seen substantial progress," IBM's VP for the Z Ecosystem, Meredith Stowell, claimed.

Demand remains

As perhaps the most prominent mainframe provider, IBM has a vested interest in keeping this ecosystem alive. The problem is that while mainframes are still quietly humming away running mission-critical workloads in industries such as banking, manufacturing and airlines, the workforce is aging.

By some estimates, about 60 percent of mainframe specialists are over the age of 50, and many are approaching retirement. Big iron has an image problem, and is seen as old and fusty compared with newer trends like cloud-native development and AI – so drawing younger staff to replace the veterans is viewed as a challenge.

The demand is there, according to IBM, which points to a survey from the Futurum Group indicating that 32 percent of organizations with a mainframe hired 11–20 mainframe related roles last year, while 35 percent filled more than 20 positions. Of those surveyed, 91 percent said they plan to invest in mainframe IT teams and hire for new positions over the next one or two years.

IBM explained that the Mainframe Skills Council will implement working groups focused on career awareness, competency frameworks, learning paths and professional development. It will allow members to share training tools and related resources to develop mainframe skills.

"The Mainframe Skills Council represents an exciting opportunity to build on these advancements and ignite the community to share experiences and create mainframe talent that can grow with the platform," Stowell enthused.

Big Blue has also introduced the IBM Z Mainframe Skills Depot – an online training resource with more than a thousand hours of self-paced learning material. Students can choose from specialized tracks tailored to roles such as System Administrator, Application Developer, or Modernization Architect.

Futurum Group VP & practice leader Steven Dickens said some younger professionals are entering the mainframe workforce, and the Skills Council could help the mainframe vendor community come together, harmonize efforts, and focus their resources on improving recruitment.

"Based on our research, the skills dynamic around the mainframe is evolving, proving that the concerted efforts from vendors such as Broadcom with its Vitality Program are starting to take hold," Dickens told The Register. However, others were more skeptical.

"IBM has had formal programs to develop the next generation of mainframe talent going back to at least 2003 when it introduced what was referred to back then as the Mainframe Charter," recalled Gartner managing VP Mike Chuba.

"This Skills Council looks to add one more arrow to the quiver of initiatives IBM has taken to bring to this market more younger professionals with mainframe skills and interest in working on the mainframe," he added.

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Chuba conceded that IBM has had some modest success in some territories, and there seem to be more students coming in now than when IBM first started focusing on this issue 20 years ago.

"But I don't know that we are at the point where we can say there is an adequate amount of talent coming in to completely offset those folks exiting the workforce," he stated.

Omdia chief analyst Roy Illsley was skeptical that IBM's initiatives would solve the problem. He told us the skills issue might be fixed through the use of AI, making the tools and processes easier to adopt, and meaning the deep expertise is restricted to only a couple of people in an organization.

All of this applies largely to IBM mainframes, of course. The other remaining mainframe giant, Fujitsu, has previously signaled the end of the line for its big iron.

The Japanese tech titan will cease manufacturing and selling mainframe systems by 2030, while support services will continue for another five years. Customers are expected to migrate applications to the cloud. ®

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