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The Talent Factor

IBM z Systems Academic Initiative helps create a pipeline of employees with the right skills for the mainframe

9/7/2016 12:30:25 AM | Many baby boomers who are proficient in working on mainframes are retiring, creating a potential shortage of IT professionals with the skills needed to fully utilize today's data and technology. Finding, hiring and retaining the right talent to fill positions is becoming increasingly important as the mainframe remains the system of choice for many companies.

"We saw this shift coming and developed the z Academic Initiative and our Master the Mainframe contest about 10 years ago to help address the z skills gap,” said Christy Schroeder, IBM worldwide zSkills client leader. “We have been working closely with schools and universities to establish enterprise courses into their curriculum. IBM provides them with the system resources and educational materials to teach the classes. The students who complete these courses are excellent candidates for the mainframe positions our clients are looking to fill. The mainframe continues to be the strategic solution for clients who demand highly available, reliable and secure systems, so they need young people to learn z Systems and to build skills in this area."

Leading organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, will continue using mainframe technology. No other system can process the number of transactions per second as a mainframe. Plus, the technology offers the flexibility, reliability and scalability that are important to businesses along with the ability to handle mission-critical workloads.

Get Face Time With Students

One way to address the talent shortage is for IBM, clients and academic institutions to work together to educate and entice students. "You need a three-prong approach," Schroeder explains. "So when the client comes to us and says, 'We need young people with mainframe skills,' we can say to them, 'We've been working with all of these z Academic Initiative schools to help develop some great talent with enterprise skills.' "

Organizations should also build relationships with their local universities by having employees serve as guest lecturers or adjunct professors to talk about their companies, trends in the industry and their mainframe environments. "Getting to know the students and exciting them about a client’s company and industry is an excellent way to recruit young people," Schroeder says.

IBM has partnered with Interskill, an affiliate of IBM’s Global Training Partner, Arrow, to offer 27 hours of no-cost, online COBOL training for a company's current employees and to all students. In the first month, from May 1st to June 1st of this year, more than 1,000 people have signed up.

Offer a Strong Career Path

Technical skills such as programming for COBOL, Linux and Java continue to be important, but companies also want candidates who are passionate about learning. “What is so important, especially in the mainframe industry, is the willingness to learn a new paradigm," Schroeder says. "Find bright, young, technical people who enjoy developing code, problem-solving and learning new skills and they will be successful in the mainframe arena."

While new hires may start out as programmers, there are opportunities to specialize in particular areas, to become a subject matter expert, to serve as a team lead and to present at conferences. Eventually, they can help set the company's strategy and direction. This job evolution is especially important to millennials.

"If you tell a millennial, 'You're going to be doing the same job five, 10, 15 years down the road,' the person isn’t likely to stay with the company," Schroeder notes. "They like the ability to change and grow and have a career path, and you can have that with a mainframe job."

She adds that millennials also like to be responsible for projects, see direct results from their work and to treat their companies like startups in which employees have a sense of ownership.

"They're not necessarily concerned about stability and staying in one spot," Schroeder says. "They are about the learning experience, growing skills and exploring opportunities. Companies should offer opportunities for millenials to demonstrate their creativity and innovativeness. The results can be impressive for the company and the positive experiences will help to retain them."

Transfer Critical Skills

Typically, the hardest positions to fill are those when a person with 30 to 40 years of experience retires. Knowledge is difficult to replace and it requires planning.

"If you know that a long-term person in a critical position is leaving, you need to set a plan in place to bring new people on board and train them to take on those skills," Schroeder says. "What we encourage is to have an overlap for the person retiring to mentor the recent hire to transition those skills in conjunction with some formal training, such as a z/OS certificate program through Marist College. Replacing 30 years of experience simply can’t be done overnight. The process can take months to get someone trained, which is why planning is so important."

The information that's passed to a new hire is often invaluable and can only be transferred through mentoring. On the flip side, employees who are hired right out of college often bring their own unique skills to an organization.

"They have an asset, which is that they come in with new ideas to leverage technology, including mainframe and creative solutions," Schroeder says. "This excites some of the people who have been at the company a while, so everyone's game gets elevated."

Brett Martin is a freelance writer based in Shakopee, Minnesota. He’s been writing about business and technology for more than a decade.

Educating the Educators
The IBM Academic Initiative gives educators free access to software, courseware and technology for teaching and non-commercial research. "The whole point of our initiative is to educate, equip and connect students, colleges and companies," says Christy Schroeder, IBM worldwide zSkills client leader.

Demonstrating IBM customers' interest in hiring graduates reinforces universities' commitment to teach mainframe skills. "We bring clients into the schools who say, 'If you produce students with mainframe skills, we will hire them,' " Schroeder explains. "When schools hear that their students will get placed with Fortune 500 companies and receive good salaries, they get excited and implement the curriculum."

The initiative has helped educate more than 180,000 students in more than 1,400 schools in 70 countries, Schroeder says.

Mainframe Demand By The Numbers
A special report in IBM Systems Magazine titled "The Pieces Are Falling into Place" from July 2015 discussed the mainframe skills shortage. The report found that:
  • 78% of companies say their mainframe workloads will grow or stay the same over the next five years
  • 85% of survey respondents agree that there's a shortage of mainframe skills
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