IBM props up mainframe education in schools

IBM Inc. has teamed up with financial and academic institutions with the goal of producing 23,000 mainframe-literate information technology (IT) professionals in the global market by 2010.

The idea behind this collaboration is to ensure enough skilled employees are available to support businesses that use mainframe technology.

Mainframes are used primarily by large businesses for critical applications, such as bulk data processing of census, consumer and industry statistics, and financial transaction processing.

This initiative will help mid-career IT professionals develop or enhance their mainframe skills, and in turn, assist organizations replace soon-to-be retiring experts in this area.

The goal is also to produce a larger number of new grads with mainframe expertise.

Such programs are relevant because it’s estimated that half of IT professionals in North America who hold around 20 years of mainframe expertise are fast approaching retirement, according to an IBM survey.

As part of the program, IBM has provided course material to seven academic institutions, which have customized it to create curricula targeted at different audiences. IBM also provides free access to mainframe hubs so students can apply theory to practical labs.

The collaboration is part of IBM’s Academic Initiative Program whereby the organization participates in R&D within universities, and develops IT programs that provide equipment, curriculum material, and mentorship.

Financial institutions, in particular, rely heavily on mainframes to process day-to-day operations, such as client transactions ranging from debit card purchases to ABM withdrawals, says Jeff Henderson, senior vice-president of technology and solutions, and chief technology officer (CTO) at Toronto-based TD Bank Financial Group.

TD Bank along with Royal Bank of Canada, and BMO Financial Group are lending their name, as well as financial support towards the initiative.

At this time, Henderson says, the driver is based in a desire to maintain a constant flow of mainframe skills, however, without such initiatives, the industry will no doubt begin to experience a labour shortage down the road.

Ryerson University in Toronto has created a six-course continuing education certificate program for IBM mainframe system Z, with computer labs that link to IBM mainframes in Poughkeepsie, New York.

The new certificate is geared towards mid-career professionals looking to add mainframe skills to their portfolio, and new immigrants who have mainframe expertise but want to upgrade, says John Fraser, director of engineering, architecture, and science programs at Ryerson University‘s G. Raymond Chang School.

The certificate program addresses an employment need in relation to succession in this workforce sector, he says. “People who run mainframes are in a cohort rapidly reaching retirement age.”

According to Fraser, many employers have identified this impending shortage within their own organizations, and are attempting to address it. “However,” he says, “it’s such a specialized knowledge that requires a fairly high-level academic approach to teaching it.”

Further compounding the situation, is the image that mainframe technology has in the market, says Henderson. “The concern we have is young people view mainframes as a legacy – almost a dead technology – when in fact, it’s still used very extensively and is a critical aspect of our infrastructure.”

It’s also an area, adds Henderson, that experiences advancement on an annual basis. “So it’s not just about maintaining older technology. It’s actually about keeping it at pace with all the other advancements across all streams of technology,” he says.

Those organizations that will be affected by the mainframe labour shortage aren’t solely financial institutions, but the public sector, retail, insurance, and transportation industries, says IBM’s Roger Bird, systems z business development executive for Canada.

Organizations that use mainframes, have made, and continue to make long-term investments in the technology, says Bird, therefore, they need that skilled employee base to maintain those systems.

“[In addition], we want to work with schools to ensure they implement a mainframe division to their IT programs so that students are more saleable in the marketplace,” says Bird.

Besides Ryerson University, the other participating schools are C.E.G.E.P. de Thetford, Georgian College, Humber College, Mohawk College, St. Lawrence College, and Université de Laval.

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