Mainframe training and development are helping local governments fill their IT ranks
For years, state and local governments have been trying to keep pace with a supercharged demand for more IT personnel. Given how pivotal the mainframe is to the ability of many state governments to carry out their missions, it’s not surprising that workers with mainframe skills are high on their lists. Adding to the urgency, as some workers with the most mainframe experience head toward retirement, government offices are scrambling to replace them.
While the demand for mainframe skills makes perfect sense, the perception that there is a talent shortage in this critical arena is off the mark. A story that emerged early into the COVID-19 pandemic’s first wave in North America thrust this search for talent into the spotlight. The coverage highlighted both the importance of the mainframe as well as some of the misunderstandings that persist about the platform.
A U.S. governor announced that he needed to hire mainframe programmers ASAP to help his state’s computer systems handle the massive uptick in unemployment claims. The narrative that several major outlets decided to run with was that state governments were using antiquated computers that couldn’t keep up with modern demands. That analysis, though tidy and easy to follow, was missing something critical—accuracy. The truth is there was absolutely nothing wrong with the mainframes; the cause for the state’s bottlenecks lay elsewhere.
In fact, mainframes continue to be the best platform to handle massive, complicated tasks such as keeping benefits flowing to hundreds of millions of people during a pandemic. The newest mainframes can handle 19 billion transactions a day. That capacity, combined with the strength and reliability of the platform, probably accounts for why just about every state in the country has a mainframe at the heart of its technology stack.
With mainframe expertise sometimes appearing to be in greater demand than supply, however, government officials are looking for creative ways to fill their pipeline for mainframe talent. The trick, of course, is to get more engineers and programmers familiar with the platform. The good news is that there are plenty of people out there who can do the work. They just need the right training and education.
As a starting point, there’s no need for government employers to search for workers who have a specific checklist of technical skills and experience, or who have prescribed certifications with a particular program or platform. Thanks to mainframes’ embrace of open source, today there are interfaces that allow programmers to use any language they are comfortable with to operate mainframes.
Opening up the technology in this manner means the next generation of IT practitioners is free to use the same tools and development processes they would on any other platform—without the need for domain-specific skills or knowledge. Meanwhile, their experienced mainframe counterparts can continue using the tools they are more familiar and comfortable with. This freedom of choice and flexibility opens up the talent pool to encompass candidates who are currently outside the traditional mainframe arena.
So, when government employers are looking for mainframe talent, they are free to consider the whole person, rather than just a collection of specific computer science degrees. It’s been amazing to see the amount of diversity that opens up and all the untapped potential that becomes available when you unshackle your search for talent from the narrower selection of current mainframe professionals.
What’s most important is for the candidates to have the right foundational skills—intellectual aptitude and motivation, for example. And as with any job, it’s also important to evaluate how a candidate fits into the organization and culture. As for the mainframe skills? Those can be learned with proper training, and there’s plenty available. Many of the major players in the mainframe ecosystem have come together as a community to offer a variety of highly effective programs that help interested parties develop specific mainframe-related skillsets as well as soft skills to help them advance in their career.
One unique program offers assistance to governments seeking access to talent by hiring and training individuals in core mainframe programming and skills before sending them on to a residency at the government site where the individuals develop hands-on experience. State and local governments then have the option to hire the new talent at the end of the residency. Because the program can be considered a form of support service for existing technology investments, state governments have been able to take advantage of it through their existing procurement mechanisms. Mainframe software and hardware vendors also offer free training and certification in mainframe operation to interested people around the world. And there is an active online community of mainframe experts and enthusiasts who are willing to pool educational resources and provide support and guidance along the way; all to help ensure the skill, capability and ongoing vitality of the mainframe workforce.
Another important consideration is the increase in remote work arrangements. Since the pandemic, there is a significant portion of the workforce that may not return to an in-office work environment. Governments need to cater to this new normal by providing access to virtual, web-based training and education opportunities. Fortunately, many mainframe training programs fit into this online mold, and partnering with one or more of these training programs can be a great way to fill your employment pipeline.
Mainframes are versatile machines, and there are a great number of qualified candidates for the jobs once you’re willing to open up your search to those with diverse backgrounds.
Lauren Valenti is head of mainframe education and customer engagement for Broadcom, based in the company’s Melville, N.Y. office.