Eastern Illinois University

Bridging the Gap

Pundits have been ringing mainframe technology’s death knell since the early 1990’s, but industry needs for information security and big data computing power have kept mainframes very much alive.   Mainframes continue to be the workhorse for large businesses, but certain factors have left the industry in a moment of crisis, creating a mainframe skills gap.  

How did this occur?  The mainframe industry was well-prepared for when the baby boom generation would reach retirement age.  Then came the messages in the 1990’s from the tech world that mainframes would go by the wayside and be decommissioned.  Younger generations took heed and began focusing on other computer technologies.  This caused mainframes to lose their luster as being “old-world technology”, although they were still very much in use.

Mainframes continued past the 21st Century mark and through the Great Recession of the late 2000’s.  As expected, baby boomers were retiring from the work force.  In the 2010’s, strong financial markets bolstered Gen Xer’s retirement savings which made early retirement a viable option, and many did.  Then a phenomenon called “The Great Resignation” came into play.  The Great Resignation was trend noted when workers began voluntarily leaving their jobs without another job in waiting.  Noted as beginning in 2009, employees monthly quit rate, leaving jobs voluntarily, has steadily climbed at a rate of 0.10% per month, each year.  The Great Resignation saw a dramatic increase during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In March 2022, The Harvard Review released an article entitled ‘The Great Resignation Didn’t Start with the Pandemic.’  The article stated five specific reasons, known as “The Five R’s”, which have contributed to workers leaving the industry.  “Workers began Retiring in greater numbers, but not Relocating in large numbers.  They were taking different jobs within their own communities instead of moving away to work a similar job.  Workers started Reconsidering their work-life balance and care roles at home.  They began making localized switches among industries, or Reshuffling, rather than leaving the labor market entirely.  Also, because of pandemic-related fears many have demonstrated a Reluctance to return to in-person jobs.”

All that has played a role in creating the mainframe skills gap.  This has led to mainframe companies forming partnerships with colleges and universities, such as Eastern Illinois University, to reinstate Mainframe Curricula and teach a new generation the skills needed to help bridge the gap.

Renewed Interest in STEM

It’s not only the mainframe industry that is seeing a skills gap.  All sectors of technology; have been and continue to experience, a shortfall of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) graduates, to fill jobs and meet the job market’s demand.

The STEM acronym, coined in 2001, is an initiative that began with the National Science Foundation (NSF), formed in 1950.  Focus on STEM-related education gained traction after Russia’s successful Sputnik mission in 1957 which led to the space race.  

STEM has been bolstered by presidential administrations in the name of economic and national security ever since.  The latest incarnation was released in December 2022 by the Biden-Harris administration. Entitled ‘Raise the Bar: STEM Excellence for All Students initiative’,  it was the latest multi-billion dollar initiative set forth to not only bolster STEM education but with a greater focus on reaching underrepresented populations such as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), as well as students in rural areas that lack facilities and instructors for STEM curricula. 

Since 1990, employment in STEM occupations has grown 79% with an increase from 9.7 million to 17.3 million jobs.  As per the latest assessments, it is predicted that this need will continue to grow 8.8% by 2028 with 3.5 million jobs needing to be filled by 2025. 

Mainframe History at EIU

Eastern Illinois University has a strong history of mainframe education dating back to the late 1960s.  Historically, mainframe courses were taught by multiple departments, including Math, Technology, and Business. Specifically in the School of Business, COBOL, JCL, and CICS courses were taught through the 2000s. This program at the time was led by two female faculty members, Dr. Karen Ketler and Mrs. Vicki Hampton. Through their encouragement, EIU graduated a proportionally significant number of female students who entered mainframe careers.  In the 1970s, EIU routinely hosted mainframe conferences as part of the Mid-Illinois Computer Cooperative (MICC), formed specifically to provide services in instructional and research programs at Illinois Public Universities.


EIU housed a production mainframe for campus operations on campus through the late 90’s and allowed faculty and student to utilize it as part of courses. The School of Business partnered with the IBM Academic Initiative in the early 2000’s and began remotely accessing the mainframe at Marist College for instruction.  Ultimately, the same misguided trends favoring object-oriented programming that many other universities followed, led to the demise and end of mainframe curriculum at EIU in 2013.

Recent Developments at EIU

More recently, EIU’s Lumpkin College was experiencing significant growth in various computer technology-related programs.  These included Business Analytics and Information Technology, Computer & Information Technology, and Digital Media Technology at the undergraduate level and M.S. programs in Technology and Cybersecurity.  With a large number of students graduating from these programs, the creation of coursework designed around deep involvement from industry partners and focused on a technology with strong employment prospects made sense.

Industry partnerships are a significant component in the overall strategy for Lumpkin College.  To stimulate more intentional engagement with external collaborators, the college created the Industry Partners Program (IPP).  Through the IPP, companies can make various levels of annual contributions to Lumpkin College and will acquire benefits at each level.  The investments range from $1,000 to $25,000 so that small companies can get increased visibility with students, and companies can choose to invest at a higher level with the intent of developing more significant relationships with learners.  The Premiere (highest) contribution level includes in-person recognition at the annual Lumpkin College Spring Banquet.

Mainframe Partnership

Around the time of the creation of the IPP, Lumpkin College was approached by Krupal Swami, Founder of TeamSWAMI, and an EIU alumna, regarding the incorporation of mainframe-related content into existing programs or the development of some mainframe-specific course offerings for EIU.  She and TeamSWAMI’s Principal Consultant, Greg DeBo, reached out to share their passion for the idea and a willingness to reach out to potential industry partners to sponsor the effort.  The timing seemed serendipitous, as the project aligned perfectly with the concepts outlined in the IPP.  Through significant outreach efforts by both Ms. Swami and Mr. DeBo, Levi, Ray, and Shoup (LRS) was identified as a potential partner.  After several discussions, LRS agreed to join the IPP at the program’s highest support level, the Premiere Level.

Beginning Spring of 2024, EIU’s Lumpkin College of Business and Technology, as part of the partnership with LRS, will offer new elective courses that will expose students to mainframe-based enterprise systems.  Students will learn how mainframe systems play a central role in the daily operations of most of the world’s largest corporations.  Real-world experts from LRS and other leading mainframe companies, will invest in and interact with students, creating unique opportunities not offered in other courses.

Curriculum Details

The introductory course will utilize resources from the IBM Z Community, specifically, the IBM Z Xplore learning platform. Students will have hands-on experience working with zSystems and have the opportunity to earn digital badges. The curriculum will include exposure to VS Code, File System, Security and Privacy, REXX, and more. Students will also be exposed to several programming languages including assembler and COBOL.  EIU Plans to offer a second course in the Fall of 2024 specifically focusing on programming in Assembler.  Both semesters will involve significant appearances from our industry partners, particularly LRS.

Closing Remarks

The above story is a shining example of the incredible opportunities in the mainframe world and displays what can be accomplished when industry and academia partner.  No, the mainframe is not “dead.”  Through TeamSwami’s efforts to help EIU network with the right employers and the extreme generosity of LRS, we are on the brink of something very special at Eastern Illinois University.  This partnership will undoubtedly impact EIU, LRS, and the other companies who participate, but more importantly, the mainframe industry will be positively influenced as new generations of talent become more aware of the technology’s advancement and capabilities, whether they work in the mainframe realm or elsewhere.