ABIS Infor - 2013-04

Shortage of mainframe skills

Gie Indesteege (ABIS) - March 1st 2013


The mainframe is dead, long live the mainframe. Despite all predictions about the end of the mainframe (ref. 1), this dinosaur still seems to be kicking and alive, growing and even offering new present-day possibilities. But where can we find the right personnel for maintaining, managing and controlling this 'Enterprise Server' (like the new name sounds)? Where do new young people get the interest and knowledge for this yet-not-so-old-fashioned platform? Because the shortage of mainframe-skilled people will cause problems if we do not act quickly.

What has a mainframe to offer?

If you define a mainframe as a number of large closets in a secured bunker, manipulated by men in dust cloaks, I'm afraid you are lagging behind for 30 years. The actual mainframe has grown (in a figurative sense, because the physical dimensions are fairly reduced) to a server for all kinds of enterprise applications, with well-sounding common characteristics: reliability, availability, scalability and serviceability.

  • the traditional batch work is still a substantial part of the daily business: wage handling, reporting, statistics and forecasting, ... everybody has to do with it. To say nothing about tons of paper, which are thereby produced.
  • we have grown up with the execution of on-line transactions: banking transactions, setting of client data, preparing orders, invoicing, ... can be found in all companies, no matter the size. Keeping into account concerns like data integrity, security, performance, volume, ...
  • (mobile) access to information (anywhere, anyhow, any...) is the newest phenomenon, where we approach our friends and the rest of the world, twittering, bluetoothing, SMSing, ... as easy as possible. Who likes to stand in the rain, trying to catch a parking ticket from the machine, and then discover that he/she does not have the necessary coins?

What does that have to do with mainframes? The answer is simple: everything. The mainframe offers the infrastructure and services to ease our live in all circumstances, and for a good price. We have to notice that we are talking about a lot of users, willing to execute a multitude of applications, accessing lots of data, all at the same time. An actual example of this were the electronic payments during the Christmas period (ref. 2).

Who knows the mainframe?

In order to understand and know the complexity of the mainframe, you need probably an experience of more than 20 years, and even then it will be quite impossible to control all aspects. Therefore we will make a distinction between knowledge of operations (OPS) and applications (DEV).

The system-aspects of the mainframe comprise the installation, configuration and activation of the operating system and the related series of services: batch environment, transaction-monitors, database management systems, application servers, security aspects, communication/network servers, print services, ... To this end, the OPS-specialist should have a good overview of the mainframe architecture and a thorough knowledge of the different subsystems and their associated tools and programs. Acronyms like TSO, ISPF, JCL, REXX, SDSF, CICS and DB2 are not unworldly to him/her. But also Linux, virtualisation, cloud, LPAR and Sysplex are part of the basic package.

Applications are still coded in COBOL or PL/1, but you will find as well Java, and C, and Perl, and ... on the mainframe, all combined with SQL databases and other data stores like VSAM or IMS databases. Development of these applications can be done with traditional 3270 terminals (or emulations), but today you can make use as well of PC-based tools with outstanding (graphical) features. Ever heard of Rational Developer for System z (RdZ)?

Developing graphical applications for mobile devices and the integration with the mainframe services and applications has some additional demands like knowledge of HTML, and JavaScript, and Dojo, and (RESTful) web services, and XML, and ....

How to prevent a shortage of mainframe skills?

A growing shortage of mainframe skills can be proved easily by a little 'google' with search arguments 'mainframe skills shortage'. See also the article of the DancingDinosaur (ref. 3).

The aging mainframe experts are slowly retiring (ref. 4), and so the vacant places should be filled with new specialists. But who is willing or eligible to apply for this job? High schools and universities barely let their students get acquainted with the marvellous mainframe world.

So action must be conducted:

  • the mainframe has a new face; he is suited also for Java and mobile; he provides for virtualisation and cloud possibilities; he supports Linux. Off with the dusty image of COBOL and green screens. However these will last for a while.
  • get acquainted with the features of the mainframe: google with search terms CICS or DB2, surf to www.znextgen.org or www.millennialmainframer.com/2012/04/ten-cool-facts-about-zos.html
  • get to know the mainframe: attend a course about the mainframe in general or one of his features in particular (and therefore you can of course contact ABIS)

And with that knowledge, you step towards one of several companies using a mainframe (banks, insurance companies, distribution sector, ... or software houses). And if you get the opportunity there to make evolve your basic knowledge, a bright and fascinating future is waiting for you.


The mainframe is alive and kicking, but demands the necessary helpers to keep it flourishing. New people can be fascinated by the huge number of possibilities of the 'Enterprise Server' of the 21st century. In order to put that into practice, you have to build the required knowledge to keep the server operational, and/or to build the applications for it. ABIS would like to help you. ( www.abis.be/html/enMVSCalendar.html)


  1. "I predict that the last mainframe will be unplugged on March 15, 1996" - Stewart Alsop
  2. www.atosworldline.be/index/nl_BE/6202261/0000/Persberichten-2012.htm
  3. dancingdinosaur.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/winning-the-talent-war-with-the-system-z/
  4. insidetechtalk.com/so-you-heard-theres-a-mainframe-skills-shortage-2