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The Mainframe’s Branding Problem Contributed to a Talent Crisis

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:32 PM

“The Death of the Mainframe” has been splashed across headlines for the last several decades. InfoWorld Editor-in-Chief Stewart Aslop famously, and incorrectly, said, “I predict that the last mainframe will be unplugged on March 15, 1996,” in the publication’s March 1991 issue.

Despite expert predictions of the legacy technology’s extinction, death predictions couldn’t be further off.

Ninety percent of Fortune 500 companies rely on mainframes, either solely or as part of a hybrid solution. A 2017 mainframe study showed 91 percent of respondents are predicting long-term viability with the mainframe as a platform, and 47 percent of IT executives say it will grow and attract new workloads.

Today’s largest global organizations rely on mainframes, but even though mainframes have proven their relevance time and time again, few science, technology, engineering and mathematics students are choosing careers in mainframe technology. This is especially problematic considering most mainframe workers are on the edge of retirement. Businesses, MSPs and mainframe industry companies have a pressing need to fill mainframe slots and train talent so these critical systems, services and products can continue to power the IT behind today’s most vital organizations.

How the Mainframe’s Branding Affects the Job Market

When analysts, media, tech professionals and organizations refer to mainframes as “legacy” technology, a negative connotation is attached to it. We associate “legacy” with something being phased out or outdated, making it an unappealing career choice for millennials entering the job market. The mainframe’s brand image has the power to dissuade talent from choosing mainframe opportunities.

The rise of the cloud is partly to blame for the narrative around the mainframe’s eventual disappearance and the pervasive “getting off the mainframe” mantra over the past 20 years has not helped. Most startups and young organizations are now born in the cloud, never to rely on mainframe environments. But a strikingly high number of businesses in the most essential industries, like finance and insurance, leverage mainframes to power even the smallest of transactions.

In addition to branding challenges, education isn’t the mainframe’s biggest advocate either. Only a 100-plus universities in the country have mainframe computer science programs that have or actively incorporating mainframe topics in their curriculums. Not only does this contribute to the lack of awareness of opportunities with mainframes, but it fails to bring any mainframe skills or knowledge to the job market. The paradox is that unless organizations actively hire college mainframe recruits, the universities that do have mainframe curriculums will begin to drop mainframe classes.

One highly effective way to bridge the skills gap is to implement and commit to a mainframe succession and mentor program so incoming talent can learn mainframe skills from IT veterans. Ensono has an active mainframe mentorship program dedicated to fostering mainframe skills and knowledge. For MSPs and organizations with seasoned talent that can effectively train new employees, it’s better to recruit candidates based on solid communication, business and engagement skills rather than mainframe experience. Finding a young candidate with mainframe experience is like finding a needle in a haystack, and if there’s a dire need for mainframe personnel, other important qualities, like whether or not an interviewee is a cultural fit, may be overlooked.

For organizations with a limited number of experienced mainframe employees, managed services provides a sound solution for a diminishing mainframe staff. By outsourcing mainframe-specific needs, companies can focus on strategic business goals instead of creating a mainframe succession plan.

How Business Can Attract and Retain Mainframe Talent

There’s no quick or easy fix to the lack of education and branding challenge facing mainframes. However, there are three ways organizations can attempt to combat the mainframe skills gap:

  1. Create a clear career path for mainframe IT: IT leaders and hiring decision-makers must actively recruit incoming tech workers, creating a strong presence and relationships with universities to let students know these roles are essential and there are opportunities with their organization. The root of the crisis is awareness, and by ensuring mainframe is part of the consideration set for IT students preparing for the real world, the chance of attracting that talent is higher. Laying out a clear career path trajectory for newly hired candidates is a critical success factor. Talent will be less likely to choose a technology career if they feel their practice area is slowly being phased out. Leaders must be honest and clear about the future of the mainframe’s role in their organization.
  2. Take an active approach to working with universities: Participate in recruiting forums, as well as creating networks with educators and students. Invest by offering to participate with schools fostering programs and training. When academic leaders understand and accept the death of the mainframe is not imminent, students will be more likely to see mainframe operations as an appealing career path. IBM has invested with the IBM Z Academic Initiative, helping schools with mainframe programs to attract students to the mainframe.
  3. Ensure mainframe IT salaries are competitive: Mainframe employees typically make anywhere from $50-75k annually. Mainframe positions should offer the same or more attractive benefits as compared to more popular IT jobs. Competitive compensation will ensure mainframe jobs aren’t lost to other, more appealing tech positions. This provides a great opportunity for new college recruits getting into the workforce and building a career in a timely manner.

These tips for attracting and retaining mainframe talent are strong solutions that should help give organizations an edge in the coming years, but the long-term, permanent fix needs to be a larger conversation.

The way mainframes are branded within organizations (via job postings and recruitment materials) to efforts toward mentorship programs and education are important stepping stones for the future of the technology job market. For many of today’s organizations, mainframes are the lifeblood of IT and too essential to go away. The only thing affecting mainframes’ mortality is talent, which can end with a new image.

Ken Harper is a 20-year veteran of Ensono that has spanned account management, business continuity, risk management and mainframe technical support all at a senior leadership level. In his current position, he’s Ensono’s product leader for mainframe services and products, a role that builds on his experiences in previous IT installations and internally at Ensono.