The great legacy skills debate

COBOL expert Mike Gilbert examines the looming skills gap between the legacy world and the newer worlds of Web services, Java and .Net.

3 min read
Bill Miller observed in a recent News.com column that much is being made about a so-called mainframe skills crisis as the work force educated in maintaining legacy mainframe systems approaches retirement.

However, before jumping into panic mode, we must first consider the question of precisely which skills we mean before we can provide a coherent statement on the nature of the crisis.

Plugging the main-
frame brain drain

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

There is a world of difference between the skills required to maintain a legacy system and those required to manage the legacy application itself. For example, mainframe systems administrators responsible for job schedules, systems security and operating system upgrades, have different skills from the application developers creating the company's business logic in traditional programming languages such as COBOL, PL/I and FORTRAN.

Some of these skills are essential to ensure business continuity. Others are less so, depending on IT's strategy. Separating the job functions out is essential to understanding the skills needs within your organization. When you consider that these are the people responsible for maintaining and operating an estimated 75 percent of business transactions that legacy applications represent, confusing them will be to your peril.

Much of the concern at the heart of the mainframe skills dilemma is in regard to the age of the work force. The popular view is that many of the staff with appropriate skills will soon be retiring, taking with them not only systems expertise but also much of the business knowledge they acquired through years spent molding information technology to the changing contours of the corporation.

This certainly is an issue, with the average age of federal government IT workers just shy of 50, and a recent survey across mainframe programmers in the U.S. finding the average age to be between 42 and 49. However, given that most of these workers still have a decade or more of regular employment ahead of them, the concern should be less on replacing their technical skills and more on leveraging the business knowledge that they possess.

Organizations must act now to map out their application portfolios in order to achieve a greater awareness of how significant any loss of knowledge might be when staff members leave. Separating strategic business knowledge from commodity IT skills is a vital step in creating the appropriate skills initiatives.

Another legitimate area of concern is whether enterprises will be able to recruit and retain the talented staff required to bridge the gap between the legacy world and the newer worlds of Web services, Java and .Net.

The concern should be less on replacing their technical skills and more on leveraging the business knowledge that they possess.

Both business and academic worlds acknowledge that teaching a specific skill or language in isolation is no longer a priority. The requirement is for interoperability. There is a blurring of boundaries now. Contemporary platforms are putting increasing pressure on the mainframe, and the mainframe world itself is embracing Linux, Java and Web services, constantly eroding the divide between the old and the new.

Today's IT professionals typically do not aspire to linear career paths aligned around a single piece of technology, but rather relish the chance to swap roles more frequently. In order to retain skilled workers, organizations can use this to their advantage as they introduce pockets of legacy technology on a project-by-project basis, building the services and business components required of an agile IT infrastructure.

With the retirement of key legacy workers still some way off, there is time for IT organizations to ensure a smooth transition of skills. But this only will occur by working to attract new recruits with the right mix of technical and business skills and ensuring that existing staff have every opportunity to impart their knowledge of the legacy systems and the business processes they encapsulate.