One of the greatest problems many mainframe-using organizations face is finding young staff who understand the mainframe and can take over from those experts who have been around for a while, seen it all, and now want to slip quietly into retirement. Too many colleges teach computing courses focused on a narrow range of programming languages. So, students graduate into an overpopulated workplace with little or no knowledge of COBOL and mainframes.

One way that IBM has been making the mainframe more open for non-mainframers is to produce applications on the mainframe with non-mainframers in mind, and to let traditionally non-mainframe tools run on the mainframe. For example, Microsoft Visual Studio Code (VSCode) runs on a mainframe. So does Java. IBM and other mainframe software companies worked on Zowe, an open-source tool that allows non-mainframers to treat mainframes like any other servers. Zowe makes CI/CD tools like Jenkins, Bamboo, and Urban Code available to developers. Also, tools like Ansible and SaltStack. IBM has also produced specific tools to allow non-mainframers to use the mainframe. For example, z/OS Management Facility (z/OSMF) provides system management functionality in a task-oriented, web browser-based UI with integrated user assistance. There’s also Z Open Automation Utilities (ZOAU), which provides a runtime to support the execution of automation tasks on z/OS through Java, Python, and shell commands.

Broadcom has its Mainframe Vitality Program, a skills development program to cultivate next-gen mainframe talent at low to no cost. Broadcom partners with organizations to attract, grow, and retain talent to help manage the mainframe in the hybrid data centre.

One way that IBM trains people new to mainframes is through its Z Xplore Learning Platform, which used to be called Master the Mainframe. This IBM claims, is a fun way to get hands-on experience across a variety of technologies, to develop valuable skills, and to earn digital badges – with no prior knowledge required!

IBM Z Xplore sets out to teach:

  • Fundamentals—users learn about data sets and how to use VS Code. They get introduced to coding languages such as JCL, Python, and USS.
  • Concepts—users get increased knowledge of security, uptime, and enterprise scalability. They can take a deeper look into subsystems, Db2 and RACF.
  • Advanced—users experience hands-on learning around REXX, COBOL, Linux, VSAM, REGEX, JCL, Python, Db2, and more.

Each of these areas contain challenges ranging from beginner to advanced. User-learning is hands-on, and they can use various coding languages. Users can access environments like z/OS and Linux. And, as their skill level increases, they can access virtual machines, CICS, and other systems. And they get to use open-source tools like Zowe and Visual Studio Code.

An essential part of most people’s learning journey is using forums and discussion groups. Not only can learners use them for their own research, they can also share their knowledge with other learners to help them make progress too. It’s a really useful community to be part of.

In order to gamify the process and make it a more enjoyable learning experience, learners can earn industry-recognized badges. (I just checked, and I have 20 of these badges on the Credly site!) Of course, once you have a badge, you can put it on LinkedIn to show how skilled you are. You can also add them to your email signature or CV (resume).

Anyone can register to use IBM Z Xplore and earn digital badges. The system is open all year round. To register, go to https://ibmzxplore.influitive.com/users/sign_in. And it’s free! There is also an annual competition for students using IBM Z Xplore hosted by HackerEarth. Competitors need to attend an accredited school and be 18 years-old or older to participate. Not only does the competition increase their learning, but people taking part could win prize money and receive an additional two badges. Also encouraging people to learn about mainframes, IBM has the IBM Z and LinuxOne community. In addition, there’s the IBM Z Global Student Hub, where students can find lots of blogs, videos, and updates about mainframe-related topics. For people with Apple devices, but strangely, not the majority of phone users who use Android devices, there is an app available called the IBM Hour of Z. The app says, “Take a trip to the digital underground with IBM! Kick start what could be a future career in enterprise computing in an hour with IBM Hour of Z.

“Have you ever withdrawn money from an ATM? Booked a flight or a hotel? Used a credit card to pay for something? All of these actions have one thing in common: they all start with a simple click. But what’s really happening behind that click? That’s Enterprise Computing. Enterprise Computing refers to the technology used by companies that are critical to their daily operations: banking and financial services, insurance, airlines, hotels, retail, and much more. It can be seen as a collection of software and hardware solutions that perform key functions for large companies and governments woven into your everyday life without even realizing it’s happening.”

And to continue learning in your own time, there’s things like IBM Expert TV, which offers free live and on-demand shows on a variety of topics. And there are online user groups such as the Virtual IMS user group that has regular meetings throughout the year. And there are online magazines, blogs, and listserv groups that give further information.

Rather than working in an environment with hundreds of people with exactly the same skills that they have (and more students graduating each year with similar qualifications), young people will be joining an industry with plenty of jobs available and the likelihood of rapid promotion. In fact, before the pandemic in early 2018, Glassdoor listed over 6,380 US-based. ‘mainframe’ jobs. Similarly, Indeed listed 9,675 jobs in mainframe, COBOL, z/OS, JCL, CICS, and IMS.

So, it does appear that there are plenty of opportunities for young people to find out about mainframes—and get themselves potentially lucrative jobs. They just need us to tell them about mainframes.

By Trevor Eddolls

Regular Planet Mainframe Blog Contributor Trevor Eddolls is CEO at iTech-Ed Ltd, and an IBM Champion for the eight years running. He currently chairs the Virtual IMS and Virtual CICS user groups, and is features in many blogs. He is also editorial director for the Arcati Mainframe Yearbook.