Millennials can thrive by adding mainframe skills

Millennials can thrive by adding mainframe skills As older IT workers retire, the industry is in danger of losing critical mainframe technology skills. But tapping millennials to fill these critical roles is helping to keep innovation alive.

"Credit cards, insurance companies, banks, government systems -- for any kind of large batch systems that use transactions like that, the mainframe is still the best at what it does from a processing speed and security perspective. That's why it lives on. And it sustains within large enterprises because there's no comparable cloud derivative, for one, and there's often millions of lines of proprietary, unique code that would be unreasonable to rework for another type of platform," said Chris O'Malley, president and CEO, Compuware.

Most organizations that can do so have already moved most of their workloads from mainframes to the cloud or other distributed systems. But those that can't are facing a severe talent shortage.

Skills shortage

A shortage of mainframe skillsets and talent isn't surprising; baby boomers that were proficient in these skills are retiring and the entire IT industry is challenged by the skills gap. The 2008 recession actually slowed the mainframe talent drain, as older workers remained on the job well after retirement age and were able to help up-and-coming talent through mentoring and training, but the effect was only temporary.

"We did see a slowdown in attrition, which actually worked in our favor because these 'old guard' folks were able to keep on mentoring and helping get the newer millennials up to speed. It helped build their confidence and their technical chops, so now that the boomers are really retiring, we have talent that's performing at the same level or even higher than the older talent," said Ken Harper, director and mainframe product leader at mainframe and hybrid IT solutions company Ensono.

But in this area, in particular, the talent shortage problem persists and is exacerbated by the fact that mainframe skills aren't included in most university computer science curriculum, so new graduates with mainframe-specific skills and training are incredibly rare.

"There are programs at schools like Marist and Northern Illinois University, for example, but they don't come out with the level of knowledge these kids would need to go straight into a lot of these companies. You can't outsource this overseas, because the skill levels aren't there. So, you just have to accept that you'll have to invest time, energy and money into training to get the skills you need," said O'Malley.