In April, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy issued a call for COBOL (common business-oriented language) programmers to work on the government’s mainframe computers amid an unprecedented surge of unemployment claims related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The “COBOL Cowboys”—a group of retired programmers who stand at the ready to respond to such needs across the country—were among the first to respond. They specialize in the 60-year-old programming language and the 1960s-era mainframe computers that run on it—both of which have largely gone out of style in university computer science curriculum. There are currently more COBOL programmers in retirement than employed in IT departments nationwide.
Governor Murphy has now closed his call for help, but the question still remains—how did we get to a point where there are so few working technicians for a language that runs 43 percent of banks, at least a dozen state governments, and 95 percent of ATM transactions?
The answer lies in job training—or a lack thereof.
I recently graduated college with a minor in computer science and had ample opportunity to be exposed to COBOL in my studies. But it wasn’t until my final year of coursework that I first heard mainframes mentioned during a lecture. A classmate next to me leaned over and whispered in surprise, “They still use those?” I never once learned about COBOL programming. My experience with university computer science curriculum is the norm.
Only 37 universities in the world have a mainframe computing course. Though teaching this technology and its corresponding language has gone out of style in academia, mainframes themselves are not going anywhere. Despite their age, COBOL remains one of the fastest computing languages and mainframes one of the most secure platforms. They’re perfect for systems processing large amounts sensitive data, like those at banks or those processing unemployment insurance filings. And if that weren’t enough to keep mainframes around, replacing a mainframe system for a local government office could cost more than $300 million, thus encouraging maintenance rather than replacement.
A technology with this lasting power needs new talent to keep it up and running. The IBM Z Apprenticeship Program provides exactly that. The program, in partnership with Franklin Apprenticeships and the Urban Institute, trains apprentices in mainframe technology for IBM’s partners, providing specialized talent with the added benefits of improved employee retention and morale.
“It’s more than [just finding the people we need],” Bea Smallets, group vice president and director of technology at M&T Bank, said. “The true attractiveness was going after a diverse workforce.” Apprenticeships allow employers like M&T Bank to hire from their local communities and focus on applicants without traditional education or career paths.
In the technology field, this diversity is much needed but hard to find. Applicants from university computer science programs are mostly white and male. As of 2017, only 9 percent of graduates with a computer science degree were Black and 10 percent Latinx. In 2016, more than 80 percent of computer science majors were men. This lack of diversity feeds into the job market: only 25 percent of computer science professionals are women, and Black, Latinx and Native employees are severely underrepresented in leadership positions across large tech companies. This lack of diversity is created and perpetuated by a limited hiring pool (PDF), and poor workforce mentoring, two issues apprenticeship can address. If employers want to hire diverse tech staff, they need to be looking outside of the traditional pipelines.
Apprenticeships are a proven solution to hiring underrepresented groups in a wide range of occupations. The answer for employers is clear: if you need to hire tech professionals for hard-to-fill positions, try apprenticeships. In the case of COBOL, the cowboys can hang up their hats—apprentices are on their way.