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Plugging the mainframe brain drain

With mainframe talent retiring faster than it's being replaced, BMC's Bill Miller sees a dangerous juncture ahead.

The mainframe is often viewed as a cobwebbed hunk of iron that's only good for housing legacy data. But in 2004, the year Big Iron turned 40, mainframe revenue actually grew by 44 percent compared with the year before.

In one important respect, the mainframe business is showing its age, as the people who know how to maintain these machines steadily join the ranks of the retired.

This marks a generational passing of the torch. In 1964, the popularity of the mainframe brought about a movement to train and educate engineers to become mainframe specialists. These engineers helped shape the next 20 years of IT innovation in corporations, as the mainframe became the IT environment for data and applications.

In a job market where downsizing and outsourcing are sadly familiar themes, here is an opportunity to reinvigorate the IT work force.

By the late 1980s, however, distributed systems began to push the mainframe into the background. Many mainframe specialists shifted into different--some might say sexier--jobs, while others simply retired.

These days, most computer science programs no longer offer comprehensive mainframe instruction. The absence of new blood comes as nearly 80 percent of the people who work in mainframe support are 50 years of age or older. With more than 70 percent of the world's digital information residing on the mainframe, companies are now hard-pressed to find skilled staff to support these critical systems.

In fact, more and more mainframe engineers are being called back into duty well past retirement age because of the knowledge they possess.

The bottom line: Without drastic measures, the mainframe and all the business-critical data it houses could someday become all but inaccessible. Here's what needs to happen to prevent that scenario from ever becoming real.

Stepping up to the plate
The fastest way to create a new crop of mainframe talent is for IT universities around the world to recommit to mainframe education by reinstating the appropriate curricula.

When I did a quick search on a month ago, I turned up more than 3,000 open positions for mainframe specialists. In a job market where downsizing and outsourcing are sadly familiar themes, here is an opportunity to reinvigorate the IT work force.

Additionally, the mainframe community should band together to provide universities with the necessary technical and personnel resources. Groups such as CMG, Afcom, Share and others have the depth and breadth to help universities get such programs off the ground.

Moreover, companies like BMC Software, Computer Associates International, IBM and others must continue to build educational initiatives for mainframe talent before it is too late. Such programs could range from academic scholarships to the creation or expansion of internal mainframe mentoring programs to help foster new talent.

Another fact: Companies need to better understand how to compensate for diminishing mainframe skills. Systems that offer heterogeneous management across mixed environments can eliminate the complexities traditionally associated with managing the mainframe. That makes it possible to work across both mainframe and distributed environments, regardless of one's database knowledge.

But time is slipping away. We are at a critical junction, as mainframe talent is quickly disappearing. Converting data from these systems requires a significant amount of time and a substantial monetary commitment. Often, such conversion is just not a viable option.

The shortage of mainframe talent will only become more acute--unless something gets done immediately. Failing that, this one-time marvel is destined to become a relic, and all the data it houses will be lost, never to be recovered.