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Is a Lack of Technical Skills Threatening UK Organisations?

by Laura Hood, Marketing Manager, Triton Consulting

The mainframe has been on a rollercoaster ride over the last 30 years; from hero to zero and now, back to hero again.  In the late ‘90s the mainframe began to lose it’s “cool” new technology status to distributed platforms.  Now the mainframe is coming back into fashion and rather than moving away from it, many organisations are building on its’ solid foundations.

According to research by CA, mainframes still handle 55% of companies’ data; this rises to 59% for companies with more than 3000 staff.  In the latest figures from IBM, System z revenues were up 69% year-on-year in the fourth quarter, so it seems that mainframe business is currently experiencing healthy growth.

There have been many reports of a looming mainframe skills shortage.  Is this just media hype or is there some truth behind the claims and if so what does this mean for UK business?

At a recent IBM customer event on DB2 z/OS technologies one of the first questions which arose from the audience was about IBM’s plans to cope with the skills shortage which is on the horizon.  There was general consensus from those in the room that UK businesses running IBM mainframes are concerned with how they are going to manage over the next ten years with so few new mainframe professionals entering the market.

I put the question to a LinkedIn community of DB2 z/OS users and got some interesting responses including:

“There is a big shortage of “Mainframe” skills, and it will get bigger.”

“From my experience, I can say that there is definitely a shortage on the horizon…I would judge that there is going to be a major crisis in the financial services area.”

Speaking to DB2 z/OS consultants in our own organisation I have seen similar sentiments expressed:

“While I don’t think the issue has really started to bite on the DB2 side yet, you only need to look at slightly older technology such as IMS to see the pattern. Good IMS skills are in very short supply nowadays.” Julian Stuhler, Director, Triton Consulting

What is causing the problem?

There are varied reasons for the looming gap in mainframe skills.  Many of the first crop of mainframe experts, who were the key technical heavyweights that put the mainframe where it is today are heading towards retirement age.  In addition to that, many mainframe administrators were re-trained and re-deployed onto distributed systems. 

For the last 10 years we’ve heard that the mainframe is dead but the reality of the situation is that the mainframe, far from being dead is actually growing.  However, this “death of the mainframe” rumour has lead trends which have meant that new entrants to the IT workplace have been concentrating their training and career paths onto distributed systems, leaving a gap that needs to be filled.

“There are very few young people involved in zSeries – right across the skill base” James Gill, DB2 z/OS Consultant, Triton Consulting.

Effect on business

The banking and financial services sectors rely heavily on the power of IBM mainframe servers and so are likely to be amongst the hardest hit if mainframe skills begin to dwindle in the marketplace.  With so much resting on the successful management of mainframes and the applications that run on them it will be vital over the coming years for the financial services and banking sectors to address potential staffing issues.   

66% of all respondents in the CA research agreed that the mainframe user will soon start to suffer, if it hasn’t already, from a shrinking workforce with the relevant skills not being readily available.

It is also worth mentioning here how immigration legislation is affecting the UK job market, particularly in reference to technical skills.  The option of bringing in skills from abroad has been made a lot more difficult with the introduction of a points based entry system.  Organisations are having to go through much more bureaucratic systems and processes to secure work permits for potential employees. 

What are the big players doing to address the problem?

IBM is not blind to the issue and is actively encouraging new blood into the mainframe world by working with universities to have mainframe modules included in undergraduate computing courses.  There are currently 19 universities teaching System z topics.  Sheffield University have been running a course as part of the undergraduate BSc degree program for the last three years with Liverpool John Moores University following suit in January 2012.  The University of West Scotland is about to become the first Scottish university to run System Z courses starting in September this year.

Cally Beck is the Academic Initiative Leader at IBM and says “I work with large enterprise clients to help them attract, find and retain young z skills, particularly on the development side.  I know it is a serious issue right across the server platforms.  I also get requests for Information management, DB2, Rational and Websphere skills.  Although I see requests from regions outside Europe, by far the most comment comes from Europe, and in particular UK and Germany.” 

In terms of DB2, IBM have for some time been working hard to reduce the mainframe-specific skills necessary to manage a DB2 for z/OS environment and while there will always be a need for some people with deep knowledge of the platform it is also now possible to do many roles using GUI tools that are more familiar and comfortable for younger generations and need less mainframe knowledge. The increased role of autonomics is also playing a part in reducing some of the lower-level skills necessary.

Another advocate of the mainframe is CA Technologies and they run their own Mainframe Academy in a bid to grow mainframe skills within the IT community.  They are also running a scholarship project until 2016 to help drive take-up -

How to manage the change

Grow your own
As we’ve seen above there is currently significant effort to increase the number of UK graduates entering the workforce with some level of System z expertise.  One possible solution then is for organisations to take these young professionals and grow them into the experts of the future.  This of course will take time, expense and effort but it will surely be worth the investment in years to come. 

Organisations need to be thinking about preparing themselves by looking internally at the skills they already have in-house.  In a CA survey 42% of Financial Services organisations said they are currently looking at additional skills and training needs.  Re-training and up-skilling already trained DBAs (Database Administrators) will ensure DB2 mainframe skills are retained within the organisation.  This approach, backed up by bringing in external expertise where necessary could be a more cost effective option than growing a DBA from scratch, in the short-term.

Wholesale outsourcing of mainframe services is certainly an option but it does bring with it some potential complications.  Outsourcing all mainframe services to a third party means that the ingrained organisational knowledge of those currently managing the system can be lost.  Although the outsourcing provider is no doubt highly skilled, they don’t have that intimate knowledge of the organisation which is built up over many years. 

A better option is “partial outsourcing” where specific areas of mainframe technology support are outsourced to a niche service provider.  In this way the organisation keeps a certain level of in-house knowledge but can also have back-up where necessary from experts in the field.  This partial outsourcing approach supports existing staff and can help bridge the gap when skills are in short supply in-house.

All of the above
As already discussed, both IBM and CA are putting huge amounts of money and effort into training the next generation of mainframe experts by running education initiatives in the UK.  However, training university students takes time to filter through the system and even more time for organisations to train them up and give them sufficient levels of experience.  By combining this “new blood” with training existing staff and working with specialist service providers, organisations can build a strong resourcing plan for the years ahead.

Triton Consulting offer a range of DB2 z/OS training, resourcing and outsourcing services.

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