Mainframe Talent Shortfall

The Mainframe is, was, and will continue to be the most vital, most important, most consequential computing platform on the planet.

Those who understand this also know that there is a talent shortage in this space.  Some may refer to it as a looming problem, but make no mistake–it is a problem for the industry right now. And it’s getting worse every day.

A few might cling to the hope that mainframe technology itself will be rendered obsolete before having to deal with the potential reality of there being no one available to work on it. That is naïve, to say the least.

Others might imagine that modernization and usability enhancements might bring about efficiencies to allow the status quo to be maintained with fewer qualified workers. That is wishful thinking.

Most of the rest are fighting the uphill battle to attract more young people to the field, with limited success.

Clearly, one big obstacle continues to be that the stakeholders who stand to lose the most from this shrinking talent pool–large corporate users of the technology–appear to be among the most visible deniers of the problem. That is to say, enterprise techies have to fight their own bean counters even before any recruiting can begin. And under those conditions, nobody’s holding their breath for any additional resources for long-term future outreach. More on this later.

Let’s focus for a moment on the next generation of workers themselves. Those young, bright folks with lots of options before them. It will be imperative that a chunk of that future workforce chooses the mainframe as their preferred career path.

Many well-meaning folks in both industry and academia have laid out plans and projects to attract those people. I offered a few ideas of my own in a 2022 article.

In whatever form, the core strategy is always the same: Convey that the mainframe is a dynamic and worthwhile platform, with a lifespan long and important enough to sustain an entire career.

In other words, convince a talented twentysomething that the mainframe is a cool choice.

These attempts have shown promise, but not nearly enough to address a very large problem that is on the verge of morphing into a crisis.

Unfortunately, I don’t see things changing. Breathtaking innovations are constantly spawning equally breathtaking opportunities in what most people think of as modern computing. In contrast, young people do not see the Mainframe getting any cooler with the passage of time.

All this will ultimately lead to a single solution: A painful approach that has yet to receive any serious consideration. At the end of the day, there is one, and only one thing, that can shift the glacial sentiment of the Mainframe into a career choice to be viewed for years to come as the cool and viable option that the already-converted truly understand it to be. If you want talented, motivated people to come, there is a way.

You must pay them.

It’s now as simple as that. That’s where we are. Does it seem cynical?  Perhaps, but if you’re trying to convince people that they will be working on critical technology upon which the world depends, you need to pay like it. If you have critical staffing gaps that could impact your multi-billion-dollar businesses, pay like it. If you want to convince anyone that working on the Mainframe is cool, nothing is cooler than a highly competitive paycheck.

A friend of mine, with 20 years of personnel experience at multiple tech companies tells me that a typical annual compensation (in the U.S.) for software engineers with a college degree and five years of experience is $250,000-300,000, plus benefits and 401k matching. And that someone working at a FAANG-type company for 15 years will be making around $700,000, again, before adding benefits and 401k. Are mainframe employees making anywhere near that kind of money? I never did. Not even close.

Another industry friend told me of a case a few years back where a new grad applied for multiple positions at a large software company with many programming openings in both the Mainframe and “modern” sides of their business. He received two offers simultaneously from this company, both reporting to the same physical address. One was for a Mainframe position on a team that generated tons of revenue and was critical to the company’s ongoing success. The other was a “conventional” programming position on a team without a viable product and for which needed skills were plentiful locally. This “cool” offer was roughly in line with other companies offering similar jobs in the area. The mainframe offer was about 30 percent less. Which one do you think he accepted? Had the salaries been reversed, I’m sure the Mainframe offer would have been more than cool enough.

It is not completely surprising that mainframe salaries lag their “modern” counterparts. Most mainframe shops are large multinational corporations, and large companies often pay less than smaller ones across the board. Also, turnover and “job-jumping,” two significant drivers of higher compensation, occur much less frequently in the mainframe space compared to other tech environments.

In 2018 I was asked about my interest in a Senior Mainframe System Engineer position for a US government agency. They wanted 10+ years of senior-level experience plus a master’s degree, not to mention significant skills across a wide set of languages, tools, and vendors. A real challenge for the recruiter, who was not afraid to tell me so. If offered the position, I was told, I would have to travel and live, at my own expense, for a three-month probationary training period, all to secure a salary of $92,000 with no other form of monetary compensation. If that job remains unfilled today, I would not be surprised.

No one wants to think that money is the sole differentiator for anything. I certainly don’t. But it is a factor. It does mean something. And at the very least, money talks louder to young people today than for the boomer-types and Gen-Xers who occupy most mainframe roles currently.

The compensation being offered today to workers already committed to the Mainframe as their career platform of choice is frankly embarrassing. How does it look to someone still in the process of making up their mind? Spoiler alert: Not very good.

It is fair to ask whether companies will be able to afford this. A better question would be, can they afford not to?

At some point, a sharp upward correction will be inevitable, and companies will overpay for sub-par talent.

The solution is to start now, get the people you want and need, and set the tone early for what the mainframe really means to your business so that when the crisis hits, a new talent pool will be ready to recruit and go to work.

Then again, what do I know?  I’m the techie of this tale, not the bean counter.

David Herlich is a Senior Mainframe Software Developer who most recently worked at DataKinetics—the global leader in Data Performance and Optimization. He started his career at IBM, where he spent over 25 years in the Db2 for z/OS development organization as a developer of the product and as an evangelist for the platform. He earned his degree in Computer Science and Mathematics from the University of California, Davis, along with a double-minor in Communications and Psychology.