Blonde, female mainframe worker checking a tablet while standing beside a supercomputer full of blue wires.
Image: © seventyfour/

Why mainframe workers are essential to bridge the tech skills gap

16 Jan 2019

What can be done to tempt the next generation of programmers to pursue a career working with mainframes? Rocket Software’s Guy Tweedale has some ideas.

Here’s a fun fact for millennials and generation Z. Every time you buy a pumpkin spice latte or a pot of hummus with a loyalty card, bank card or Apple Pay, you’re touching a mainframe. Indeed, unbeknown to the general public, the average person ‘touches’ a mainframe 12 to 14 times a day.

With the mainframe at the centre of countless everyday processes, it is an essential tool for big business. Banks, insurance companies and a whole host of other organisations use mainframes to process millions of transactions per second, with the most recent IBM mainframes capable of completing 12bn highly encrypted transactions a day.

However, as experienced mainframe workers retire, the next generation is not exactly waiting in the wings to take over. The 2018 Annual Mainframe Survey Report by BMC shows that only 12pc of the mainframe workforce comprises employees under 30. While the slight increase from 7pc in 2017 is a positive development, there is still much to do to entice young people to choose a career working on mainframes. So, what can be done to tempt the next generation of programmers to pursue a path that seems to have an image problem?

Get with the mainframe

First of all, it’s important for universities and businesses alike to help tell students about the variety of jobs that are available in the tech industry. There is a lack of understanding about traditional skills, as students frequently don’t realise that development tools and languages they understand – such as Python, PHP, Java and Git – can all be used on the mainframe.

Secondly, co-operation between businesses and universities is essential to communicating this, helping to set the next generation up for success. Luckily, there are many initiatives that are already trying to address this. Businesses with mainframe expertise are beginning to invest in part-time lectureships for senior IT executives. They also offer summer internships or year-long placements to students and provide input on course content. This collaboration is essential if we are to address the growing skills challenge.

Run the numbers

Computer science graduates currently having one of the highest unemployment rates of all degree disciplines in the UK, which might come as a surprise as developers are fiercely sought after. Many IT recruiters require skills that go beyond what is taught at university, and the demand is greater for experienced employees rather than entry-level students.

Therefore, it is hugely beneficial for students to start thinking about where in the industry they’d like to go once they graduate and acquire the necessary skills beforehand. While it’s understandable that students may not immediately think of mainframe programming as a career path, they should not be fooled by its perceived outdated exterior. A whopping 71pc of Fortune 500 companies use mainframes every day.

The bottom line is that older infrastructure isn’t going away any time soon. Armed with the right knowledge, even students fresh out of university can take their pick of jobs and command a far higher wage than their counterparts who lack mainframe expertise. The average salary for mainframe jobs in the UK has recently risen by 27pc and currently stands at  £77,000 a year. That’s a lot of pumpkin spice lattes.

It’s not about the platform

According to the 2017 World Economic Forum Global Shapers Survey, the millennial generation is one that fiercely cares about the future and their work. A sense of purpose and having an impact on society is a priority for more than 40pc of respondents.

Ultimately, as the technology industry develops and accessibility increases, it’s less about what platform you’re using and more about what can be achieved with it. As these tools become progressively commonplace, students need to be made aware of the opportunities to close the skills gap, and businesses and universities alike must show students how they can make a positive impact on the world – one mainframe at a time.

By Guy Tweedale

Guy Tweedale is the regional vice-president at Rocket Software.

A version of this article originally appeared on Computer Business Review.

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