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How IBM is answering CIOs' calls for workers with mainframe skills

IBM is leading the charge in closing the mainframe skills gap. Read about the internship and job placement rates of several of the universities that participate in the IBM initiative.

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The are a variety of reasons why some businesses continue to rely on the mainframe's superior performance and reliability.

Mainframes process 30 billion business transactions daily and up to 150,000 transactions a second in peak loads; they also run the world's financial systems, and are a platform of choice for other transaction-intensive industries such as airlines, hospitality, and insurance.

The latest IBM series z13 mainframe can process 2.5 billion transactions a day. The mainframe was the originator of virtualization in the 1960s, and the z13 system reflects this tradition with its ability to run thousands of virtual instances of Linux under its hood that support myriad applications, as well as big data processing software such as Hadoop.

Mainframes also play well in the cloud; they can quickly virtualize and deploy systems, running them at high levels of performance, reliability, and efficiency.

Business leaders' mainframes challenge

The average age of a mainframe professional is between 55 and 60, according to a quote in a 2010 Bloomberg Business article. "The concern that I heard from senior executives at major enterprises in our area was that half of their mainframe workforce would be retiring in the next four to eight years," said John Turchek, Professor, Computer Information Systems and Department Head, Computer Information Systems at Robert Morris University (RMU) in Pittsburgh. "They were going to need young people with the right skillsets to run this technology."

The call to action from IT executives came as a bit of a surprise to Turchek. "Between 1976 and 1995, our University taught six core mainframe courses to all undergraduate IT majors," he said. "Then in 1995, we made these course electives, and in 2005, the courses disappeared from our curriculum altogether."

The curriculum change was a likely response to 1990s tech prognosticators who predicted that mainframes were going to be totally displaced by distributed client/server computing. However, the futurists of that time were not the IT executives running the data centers at major companies. "I must have had ten IT executives from major companies around Pittsburgh come knocking on my door," said Turchek. "They wanted us to resume offering the mainframe courses."

Today, RMU offers an Enterprise Systems Program to IT undergraduate and graduate students that consists of five to eight core series z mainframe courses (depending on student specialty). "Enterprises tell us that they want graduates with skills in the series z operating system, in virtualization environments like z series mainframe zLinux, and in programming, database and transaction processing software that runs on mainframes," said Turchek. He added that the job placement rate for students in RMU's mainframe program is close to 100%.

At the University of Arkansas, David Douglas, Professor of Information Systems in the Sam M. Walton College of Business and Director of Enterprise Systems, is quoted in a Transworld Data case study (PDF) that their job placement rate for graduates with mainframe training was also around 100%, and that the University additionally averaged around 30 student internships with enterprises each year. "We don't quite have a 100 percent conversion rate for our interns into permanent jobs once they conclude their internships, but much of this is due to companies just not having permanent employment openings available, or the student deciding to accept employment elsewhere," said Douglas. "What we have found is that if a company has an opening when one of our students concludes his internship, the company generally makes an offer of permanent employment."

Today, over 1,400 colleges and universities worldwide are enrolled in IBM's z Systems Academic Initiative, according to Don Resnik, who leads the program. Some offer multiple courses on z Systems, others an introductory course, and many of them have students competing in the IBM Master the Mainframe Contest. Many program graduates get jobs at big companies and earn salaries that start in the mid-$70,000s, according to Dr. Bryant Mitchell, Associate Professor of Business Management at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES).

"We had a busload of UMES students visit us here, and we gave a tour and held an open mic forum," said Anthony Dolan, an IT Director at DTCC, which processes trillions of dollars of securities transactions on a daily basis. "The questions they asked were very astute and sophisticated....On the average, it takes about three years to develop a new hire into a seasoned technology professional in our environment . . . but the students from UMES hit the ground running."

Disclosure: I am the president of Transworld Data.

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About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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