Promoting IT Careers Is Key Concern for IBM User Group

Hiring and retention remain top concerns for CIOs. Share, an IBM user group for enterprise customers, is trying to find ways to encourage students to enroll—and stay enrolled—in computer science majors and keep young mainframe professionals engaged in their careers. The group, which counts a number of mainframe professionals among its ranks, has set up a mentoring program for those new to the field. Its members also work with the academic community to promote the profession.

Share treasurer Jim Michael, a longtime IT director in the university environment, spoke recently with Baseline about the shortage of IT professionals and Share’s efforts to promote IT careers.

Baseline: The retention and hiring of staff is a top management challenge for CIOs. From the Share perspective—from the mainframe market perspective—how bad is the skill shortage, and are we reaching any kind of crisis point?

I don’t subscribe to the view, which seems to be common, that the mainframe skills shortage is at crisis proportions.

Do we have IT skills issues in general? Yes, I think we do. But I don’t think it’s a crisis, I think it’s an issue.

Why do those jobs command relatively high salaries? It’s supply and demand—there’s not an overwhelming supply. And those who work in the field are grateful for that because it keeps salaries up.

Industry is doing various things to deal with the issue. In some cases they’re outsourcing to a company in this country that does the work they need. In other cases, they’re offshoring to areas where they can find the skills they need or they can find a more attractive price point.

As for the mainframe in particular, I don’t have a lot of data on this. From an anecdotal standpoint, I’m not running into a lot of situations where people are saying, “It’s terrible. I just can’t get the people I need.” What I’m hearing is similar to the rest of the IT skills issue: It’s a challenge to find the right folks with the right skills, but ultimately the people needed are found.

IBM and Share are sponsoring a group of mainframe computing professionals called zNextGeneration, or zNextGen. The goal is to forge ties between large—systems veterans and new mainframe professionals so the newcomers can leverage the experiences of the seasoned pros. How’s this going?

It’s a very engaged group, and it’s primarily a lot of young faces. These are folks in their 20s and 30s—some of them just out of college—who have decided that working on large systems is where the opportunity is.

They’re interested in working in a field where they’re attractive and desirable to potential employers.

zNextGen was a specific effort that IBM and Share made together a few years ago to deal with the issues of baby boomer retirements and the fact that, if you looked around a room full of mainframe professionals, there was a whole bunch of gray hair.

When we started, we were just getting over this misapprehension that the mainframe was dead. We recognized that it was still alive. And that most of the nation’s—and the world’s—critical corporate data was stored on those systems.

So Share and IBM began asking what we could do to effect a change, to get more people involved with supporting large systems. IBM has been working with the universities to get mainframe professionals trained. Once they graduate and they get hired, what support group do they have?

Where’s that organization that they can go and see a bunch of people like themselves—both people their age getting into the industry, and older people who might be able to show them the ropes, offer tips, and tell them how to succeed in their new careers?

And IBM and Share reached the conclusion that Share was clearly that organization.

At our Share meeting in 2006, we had 300 people in the zNextGen program. They’re putting on a great set of sessions at Share meetings twice a year.

So it’s a very active, vital, engaged group of folks focused on how they can be successful in the field.

What’s going on at the university level these days in regard to training new and future mainframe professionals?

There’s a couple of interesting things.

David Douglas, an information systems professor at the University of Arkansas, is teaching a mainframe curriculum and helping prepare students to enter large—systems careers. The university is working very closely with local business—businesses like Tyson, Wal—Mart and others that use large systems—so that the students are getting practical experience and an opportunity to understand how these systems are put to work in meeting business requirements.

There’s also a program at Marist in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., that’s pretty impressive. The school has been very strong in areas such as z/VM and the use of large systems to support virtual environments.

At Marist, folks can get an associate’s certificate and then go on and get professional certificates after looking into assembler language, emerging technologies like Linux and grid computing, service—oriented architecture—some of the key trends in the industry—and how those map onto the large systems.

And in addition to associate and professional certificates, Marist is beginning to offer an expert certificate. You have to first have two certificates, and then you choose either an application development track or systems administration track—so either you’re looking at things like Unix system services and WebSphere and all of that, or you’re looking at the operating system installation configuration, RACF [Resource Access Control Facility] security and such.

I think what Marist is doing is really neat. People get a very focused package of education that helps prepare them for the aspect of the career that they’re most interested in.

You mentioned the program at the University of Arkansas. Are Wal—Mart and Tyson tapping into these people when they’re looking to make new hires?

Yes. A high percentage of David Douglas graduates are hired within a very short time after they graduate because they have the skills that are in demand and they’ve been exposed to industry. So they’re prepared to go out and begin to make a valuable contribution right away.

And the companies that hire them don’t have to take a substantial amount of additional time to prepare them to make a valuable contribution.

And the companies are helping the professors round out the curriculum to make sure the students are learning marketable skills?

Precisely. That’s absolutely correct. They’re looking at the industry to help determine what their program needs to provide, what the students need to know to be of value to them.

It’s definitely a dialogue. It’s a two—way conversation between the universities and the industry so that the university programs are designed to provide the right skills.

So these efforts are successful. But will we be able to alleviate the skill shortage?

I think, in all fairness, that it’s going to remain an issue. We’re doing what we can to solve the problem. I think we’re making progress. I believe that between IBM and Share’s efforts, we’re going to adequately address this.

But I don’t see a glut of IT professionals on the market anytime soon.

I think IT is going to remain a skill that’s in demand. And industry is going to have to work to make sure they’re developing folks, and that they’re helping the universities prepare the right programs to develop the right skill sets. And that’s just a reality for the industries.

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