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Blog | COBOL | Education & Training

From Bootcamp to Employment: Closing the Mainframe Skills Gap

By | September 10, 2021

Written by Cameron Seay, Ph.D. – Adjunct Instructor, East Carolina University & Chair of the Open Mainframe Project COBOL Working Group

This is the fourth in a series of blogposts from the perspective of a practicing academic.  I have been in higher education for 16 years and was an IT practitioner for 21 years before that. This blog originally ran on the ASG website. For more content like this, click here

Developing New Mainframe Talent

In previous posts, I gave an overview of the history of mainframe education at the university levelwhy it is no longer present in our colleges, and recommendations for what could be done to bring it back into the curriculum. In this post I will give an overview of “extra-curricular” (non-class) activities that companies are beginning to employ to develop new mainframe talent.

The Apprenticeship Model

We are all familiar with the apprenticeship model, where a neophyte is mentored by an expert until he or she develops professional-level expertise. We are familiar with the model in trades, like for electricians and plumbers. But in the latter part of the Obama Administration, the U.S. Department of Labor began to apply the apprenticeship model to STEM fields like computer science and IT. I participated in this program, and a contract I was awarded facilitated the creation of the IBM Mainframe Apprenticeship Program, which is still in effect today. The process entails identifying candidates for mainframe rolls, with or without a four-year degree, and preparing them to become mainframe professionals. According to IBM, the program is a complete success.

Several companies have followed IBM’s lead in deploying the apprenticeship model, using a variety of approaches to transform mainframe neophytes into budding professionals. A large mainframe hardware/software provider (not IBM) is using the approach of giving newcomers, with no mainframe experience, an introduction to the mainframe and then training them in their (the training company’s) products to service the training company’s large customer base. The apprentice works for and is paid by the training company for 6 months, then they work for the client company. If everything works out, which it almost always does because of the training company’s careful screening, the newcomer then becomes a permanent employee of the client company. This model has been extremely successful and seems to be spreading.

There are several variations of this theme, but a unique model is what my partner John Thompson and I have done in creating mainframe “bootcamps.”  The bootcamp model is not new, but I think our particular implementation of it is.

John has been working with Tennessee State University (TSU), a public HBCU in Nashville, TN, for several years focusing on placing TSU students in internship and new hire positions. This spring, a scheduled COBOL class had to be cancelled due to a shortage of faculty.  John contacted me to see if we could have weekend mainframe classes (most of the students had full time jobs during the week). My initial response was skeptical, but knowing John and his penchant for attempting the implausible, I agreed.  The result was four weekends of two-day sessions with material from my semester-long mainframe intro class.

Mainframe “Bootcamp”

The classes met from 10am to 2pm with a five-minute break every hour. We covered JCL, ISPF, TSO and REXX, creating and managing data sets. There were a series of 8 labs – six mandatory and two bonus labs – that had the students work “hands-on” creating data sets, using TSO and ISPF, and running jobs via JCL. The labs were the same ones I used during the semester courses I teach and historically seem to be pretty effective. We had 45 requests for admittance and accepted 25.

The result was we deemed 14 of the 23 participants as ready to be presented to the industry. We had discussions with several companies (many of which are multi-billion-dollar companies whose names you would all know). Of that 14, 13 have been extended offers. Several participants had two offers, one had three offers of either permanent positions or summer internships. Because of the success of this bootcamp, we have scheduled more, each with a specific focus. We are currently conducting one for COBOL, with several more planned in DB2, CICS, assembler and other areas in mainframe.

The participants were all students or graduates of HBCUs, and most were either computer science or information systems majors. One was an accounting major, one was a social worker, and one had a master’s degree in physics. All were either unemployed, not working in a technology job, or in a technology job far below their expectations. This level of success has gotten the attention of many companies and we are also meeting several large federal agencies who are now feeling the pinch of the “Gray Tsunami,” or the wave of upcoming retirement of mainframe professionals with no one to replace them.

The moral of this post is that the skills crunch is NOW, and if you start developing a continuity plan for your mainframe skills tomorrow, you have started too late. You can contact me if you would like more information about what to do about your upcoming mainframe skills shortage.

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