Vertali launches New to Mainframes (NTM) program
The results of a survey by RSH Consulting, Inc. made sobering reading this January. Far from being a wake-up call concerning the worrying lack of trained mainframers, particularly in security, it appears the industry has been repeatedly hitting the snooze button for years. The time for more decisive, concerted, industry-wide action is overdue.
Like many others, I’ve been writing about our ageing workforce, the mainframe skills shortage and need for next-gen in mainframers for years. I’ve been involved professionally and personally in initiatives to help. But it appears that whatever we’ve been doing, across industry and academia, it’s not been enough. We need to get serious about fixing this long-running problem and step up our training efforts, not only creating the next wave of security engineers and security administrators but all-round mainframe techies.
First, the bad news. “Decades ago, the large accounting and audit firms used to have talented and experienced RACF professionals on their staff… based upon the results of this survey, it appears they may have none,” said Bob Hansel of RSH Consulting. He reported that:
- More than 55% of the RACF workforce is aged 60+ compared to 35% five years ago.
- Less than 5% of the RACF workforce is under the age of 40, half of what it was ten years ago.
- 50-75% of the RACF workforce is expected to retire in the next five years.
And this at a time when mainframes are not only “not going away” but proving themselves to be essential during the pandemic and its impacts, and are now enabling the digital transformation of so many organizations. One of the reasons we still have this skills gap is some people assumed the mainframe was legacy and would die, so failed to invest in a future workforce. But it hasn’t. The platform has actually moved forward with, say, the IBM Telum chip, pervasive encryption, cyber resiliency… Speaking of which, we also live at a time of heightened cyber threats, with the mainframe seen by the bad actors as “just another server” to be hacked and compromised. As our own pen tests routinely demonstrate, it can be as vulnerable to ransomware and other attacks as the next server.
My team and I are busier than ever. Demand for our skills, worldwide, is huge, in general mainframe expertise as well as specific security matters.
The RSH survey highlights more than a troubling trend. It points to a chronic situation. Not everyone is going to keep the mainframe of course. But there are many business verticals where it will remain a critical component of their IT infrastructure in a hybrid world. But there are simply not enough of us, and we’re getting older. As Bob Hansel points out, “Mainframes will continue to be prevalent and essential… and all RACF installations are going to need staff.” He says demand for RACF practitioners is already high and set to grow with the continuing tsunami of retirements, with conversions of ACF2 and Top Secret to RACF adding to demand.
Across the workforce in general, the pandemic and afterwards have seen a huge rise in the number of over-50s not returning to the workplace. The BBC has reported that the UK “has seen one million people, mostly in their 50s, leave work.” That’s quite a problem when most of your people are aged well over 50. I was chatting to a client a few weeks ago; its senior RACF manager had announced her retirement, triggering the retirement of two more team members. Vertali is being asked to step into the breach. It would obviously be lower cost for the organization and a more sustainable long-term situation to be able to utilize new homegrown talent. They needed a succession plan.
We all do. If what Bob suggests could happen does happen with retirees, just in the security space the industry probably needs 200-250 people to come through worldwide, to fill the gap. Maybe more.
So, what’s the good news? The first thing, and I may well be biased (I am biased) is that mainframes and mainframe security offer a great career path. It’s taken me around the world. No two days, no two security challenges or organizations, are the same. I continue to meet amazing people. It can be financially rewarding, too.
So how can we ramp up our efforts to spread the word, and suck in more talented people?
In his article on Planet Mainframe ‘Tell them about mainframes’, Trevor Eddolls writes that “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.” He referenced, among others, IBM’s Z Xplore Learning Platform (formerly Master the Mainframe), which includes “gamifying” the process and trying to make it a more enjoyable learning experience. Anyone can register and earn digital badges.
There are pockets of academia focusing on the mainframe but not enough, and individuals like the brilliant Dr Herb Daly at the University of Wolverhampton who’s long championed the cause. I’m also heavily involved in GSE UK. At our 2022 annual conference, we welcomed at least 50 students and new-to-mainframe people, a significant chunk of end users attending. That’s very encouraging.
And companies like Vertali need to put our money where our mouth is. We are launching our New To Mainframe (NTM) initiative in 2023: a ten-year strategy and program to create the next wave of mainframers. This means recruiting the right NTMs with the right attitude and aptitude—arguably more important than previous experience in my mind. It means 6–9 months of prep before they can start being properly useful, 12–18 months before they can fly solo, and at least three years before they are fully independent and can go off and fix things on their own, so to speak. We’ll be pairing our NTMs with mentors. We’ll be working with clients and partners to give them valuable hands-on experiences, placing them in roles where they can start to make a difference.
This is about creating the technical people we need, as an industry. So look out for more details of the New To Mainframe (NTM) program. Maybe you’ll want to get involved? Working together, I think our industry can turn the tide. And the first step is to stop hitting that snooze button.
A global thought leader and international speaker in mainframe security and technology, and passionate advocate of all things Z, Mark Wilson is Vertali’s Technical Director. He has more than 40 years ’experience across numerous industries and diverse mainframe environments. Mark is also Region Manager for Guide Share Europe (GSE) UK. For more information email: firstname.lastname@example.org