Four classic IT jobs that are moving to the back burner

Four classic IT jobs that are moving to the back burner

Summary: Because of its unrelenting pace, IT can be a brutal profession on those who crave stability and tradition. These four formerly hot job roles are a perfect example, as they fade, morph, and change.


'Volatile' is a word that comes up repeatedly when talking to IT professionals about the jobs landscape.

The overall employment picture may be relatively healthy, but job roles can change quickly as new technologies and trends affect businesses' IT requirements.

"Because this market is so volatile, things will change in a month-to-month basis, and it takes a while to understand where the trends really are," said Jon Heise, senior technical recruiter at Instant Technology.

The following four jobs were once 'hot', but are now experiencing important shifts. These roles aren't going extinct any time soon, and there are still lucrative careers to be found in some of these areas, but the overall trends are for fewer job openings.

1. Mainframe programmers

"Before there was web development, before there was a lot of custom software development, mainframe programming was really the primary programming job," said John Reed, senior executive director at financial recruitment specialist Robert Half. With the advent of web-based software, and more client server software, mainframe applications are not used so much. Fewer people are learning COBOL and looking for careers in mainframe programming.

This is not to say the job role is extinct — governments and large financial institutions still use mainframes and will continue to do so. According to Mary Shacklett, CEO of Transworld and TechRepublic contributor, mainframes still run 60 percent of business applications worldwide: "For a transaction processing computer, there is no faster or more reliable machine out there than a mainframe. The big enterprises all know this. That's why they keep them," she said.

Another reason, Heise added, is just how much money it would cost to change, and when they still work, there's just not the need. 

Where there will be a need, Global Knowledge's senior vice president Michael Fox said, is when the programmers currently in those roles start retiring during the next 10 to 15 years.

"That's going to be a huge opportunity to step up because those new mainframe skills aren't going to be traditional mainframe skills — they're also going to need web services, mobility, they're going to have to tie all that together."

2. Systems administrator

This is another area in which bigger trends like the cloud, virtualization, and even outsourcing and large consultancies are affecting the demand for these roles.

"I think some of the administrative roles around infrastructures in companies is waning as companies are moving to cloud computing," Reed said. "You see some of these roles where companies have people administering servers and systems, and computer hardware — as a lot of that moves to cloud computing or virtual computing environments, some of those roles are less important for certain organizations." 

Similarly, said Heise, there's always going to be a baseline need, but the proportions, from his perspective, do seem to be going down. In other cases, these jobs are moving from employee positions within a company to working for a consultancy that handles systems administration for many different organizations.

3. Help desk technicians

The role of the help desk technician is perhaps less prominent than it once was. For smaller companies, a more tech-savvy workforce, BYOD,  technology like Macs or Gmail, and outsourcing, means that the need to have designated individuals ready to troubleshoot is not as strong.

"The help desk continues to exist — but the job increasingly gets assigned to the 'new kid on the block' and is a kind of 'launch pad' into some other role in IT as soon as the person can get himself out [of the help desk]," said Shacklett.

Heise said that it has become harder to find candidates who are good fits for help desk roles in recent years. "Help desk is usually a very challenging role for us because finding people that are good enough to do it and aren't already moving into different things becomes a bit of a challenge," he said. As for the general level of demand, Heise said he wouldn't be surprised if companies "are looking to trim that type of support or service away in favor of a cheaper or easier alternative."

The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job growth of 17 percent for help desk analysts through 2022, but also noted that "a rise in cloud computing could increase the productivity of computer support specialists, slowing their growth at many firms."

4. SMB IT manager

Heise said he's experienced several instances where lower-ranking IT managers are getting passed over or reduced in favor of giving more responsibilities to a more senior manager.

"Every executive's perspective will be different, but when it comes down to it, when competition is tight, profits are tight, everybody wants to keep boosting their IT arena," he said.

One reason for the shift might come as managers are need to wear multiple hats instead of filling just one IT role. In other words, the new hire in marketing might be particularly tech-savvy, so instead of the company hiring a full-time IT manager, she has responsibility for IT in addition to her work in marketing.

Shacklett said she actually sees that trend resulting in an expansion for SMB IT managers. "Because the SMBs can't afford all the IT specialists and so they hire a 'journeyman manager' to try to cover all of their IT," she said.

Also see

Topics: The State of IT Jobs: Winners and Losers, IT Employment

Erin Carson

About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the impact of social media in business and the ways technology is transforming the future of work.

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  • I definitely see the trend

    Up until 6 months ago I worked as a Sys admin in a medium sized business. My employer decided they would be better served by a large IT consulting firm, who could provide 24/7 coverage. They also decided to get out of the hardware game and shift the majority of their services to hosted. (Office 365, hosted Exchange and VDI) Fortunately, I snapped up a job at the company they outsourced my job to. In the last 6 months I've seen multiple colleagues experience the same outsourcing of their jobs to companies like my current employer.
    • My IBM job was outsourced 5 years ago this month

      3 Indian contractors sitting in a GDF (Global Delivery Facility) in Boulder took over the 1 job I had. *3*. At much smaller pay and zero benefits. It's simply not true that all these jobs are disappearing. They are changing, but they're also rapidly going offshore but also staying here but moved to very cheap labor that sends all its earnings overseas.
  • Mainframe programmers???

    But when they're gone, who will write the JCL???
    • I thought that was a funny inclusion

      The end of the mainframe programmer has been predicted for what, 25 years now?
      • Closer to 45...

        Ever since the minicomputers came out in the 70s - they started taking on some of the functions of the mainframe. They were called "departmental servers", and equivalent in capability of the original mainframes.

        Then there were the "superminis", which were equivalent to the next round. They weren't in the 3090 class, but they could handle fewer jobs with the same throughput.
      • Re: I thought that was a funny inclusion

        Not more than 5 years
    • COBOL!

      Exactly. There are millions of lines of COBOL code out there and thousands upon thousands of batch jobs needing IBM mainframe JCL support. I used to be a COBOL-74 programmer and pretty darn good at JCL. However, that was a few years ago. I am wondering if a guy who retires from IT could take some refresher courses and get some gigs providing maintenance support......
  • Funny

    This conflicts with another story following it by hours.

    My guess? Most of these are not journalism but repackaged recent press releases or blog posts that grind some vendor's axe.
  • Not true

    Who writes that stuff?!
    How can a sysadmin role fade away? Are computers suddenly going to run themselves?
    Changing to cloud computing means a sysadmin has more on his job description, not fade his job away. And consulting firms will still need the same sysadmin role to outsource to these companies!
    IT managers replaced with any other manager?? Ha! I'd like to see how many companies can pull that trick.
    Help desk? Sureeee.. If you can hire a marketing specialist or an accountant who can configure his system on the company's domain (who is managed by the sales director)!
    • I'm with you....

      Things are changing for sure but I see these as more of an enabler for professional growth than anything else. Sysadmins will benefit from this because their role will migrate from reactive break/fix to a more proactive strategic role with more involvement in projects. For others, these jobs will move to the data centers to some extent, giving them new skills that are more scalable.

      I have seen attempts to have non-IT people manage IT as well as many failed outsource relationships. There are good companies out there for sure but in my experience, many cannot meet the needs of a medium sized business and with no one with the skills to keep them on-track, things can fall apart.
    • Actually, it is relatively easy.

      The job has been outsourced to the "cloud".

      What remains are applications. The actual system administration is carried out by the cloud vendor and the software used. The end result is that the "administrator" just makes phone calls (just like users used to do)...
      • How is the "cloud" maintained?

        Magic? Wishful thinking? Maybe end users are flying to the Pacific Northwest to do their own onsite AWS maintenance now?
        Tony G.
        • But it can be maintained by a group that

          administers MANY companies. So a small group handles many companies. A trend that has been going on for a while.
    • Outsource your infrastructure and it goes to

      a group that manages many companies. Yeah your quality goes down but that has stopped outsourcing. Quality goes down but management doesn't care. Example: Salesforce; development simple admin duties are with the functional team. Big stuff is done by salesforce somewhere else. You need sysadmin - but not as many is what I took from the article.
  • What I have seen...

    1) Mainframe? Well yeah, if you only specialize in one thing and that one thing is sunsetting, you will get cut. Many of the "fat beards" retired or are ready to, the new guys admin these legacy systems are also maintaining other newer systems as well.

    2) SysOpts? This always cracks me up when I hear it. Who do you think gets all those cloud services working together? Think ADFS is just configuring itself to connect to your MDM? We have just as many mail admins before moving our Exchange server to 365 as before. About the only work that is decreasing is dealing with physical servers.

    3) Helpdesk? I kinda agree with the low level entry for this position. What we do is we have a really good paid internship program, we are on the board of the local university's CS department business collaboration group, and we test interns on the helpdesk, hire the good ones, and in a year or so move the good techs to other positions in IT.

    But helpdesk can also retain higher skilled personnel if you need it with lower pay by being super flexible. These are the perfect positions for working remotely. We have one tech who owns a farm up north and grows hops (made into some great Michigan micro brews!).
    Rann Xeroxx
  • Mainframe programming

    The elusive pursuit! When I graduated in '79 with my AS, I really thought I had a great career before me. But there were a lot of obstacles. First was the recession, then the fact that there was no such thing as a smoke-free environment at the time (I'm hyper-sensitive), then the elapsed time due to the recession caused me to be devalued. The closest I ever got was as a operator, four years at one place and eight years at another, neither led to any kind of advancement. After my company lost the contract to the Indian contractor I have been bouncing around from one non-mainframe job to another. I put in for a mainframe job that would have required moving to the west coast but was told that they decide to sub-contract the job out.
    • Mainframe

      Yeah, our company is going to be off he mainframe by 1995.

      Whenever the subject comes up, somebody shows that the support cost is about 10% that of our client-server apps.
  • COBOL and Also Outsourcing

    Having worked most of my professional life in Outsourcing, I can say that the current fashion for Cloud computing is only an extension to a broader audience of what large Organisations have been doing for years. I.e. getting professional IT Infrastructure companies to run their IT. As such Sys Admins are not extinct. Just a bit more hidden from the general user community. However the fact that Outsource companies make their money by more efficient use of resources means less roles overall. But this was always going to happen as the IT moved from being a must have novelty to just another unavoidable cost that needing managing.

    COBOL: Yes I totally agree that Mainframes are still used by large organisations and therefore COBOL programming is still alive and kicking. In fact it makes me smile, the number of times over the last 20 years I have heard COBOL & Mainframes being written off. What is interesting is that while all the trendy 20 somethings flock to do glamorous Web based programming, the more mature programming community still thrives on COBOL. In fact given the smaller numbers of COBOL programmers around, I am aware that many colleagues have actually seen their annual compensation rise. As they say it is a story of supply and demand. And in this instance the market is definitely supply led.

  • If by 'Back Burner'

    You mean India, youre correct. Its called cheap labour.
  • Yet another Poorly written article re the demise of mainframe programming

    I think after so many years where the mainframe has not died despite predictions and disruptive technologies that someone should ask the question "why hasn't it died?"

    Continuing to write misleading, poorly researched and biased articles is not only annoying but a disservice to the IT community. I was a mainframe programmer for 20 years and I still keep up with the strategic direction mainframe computing is taking to keep it alive. In fact, I recently wrote an article, "Mainframe to Mobile," which highlights the direction IBM has taken to marry the two platforms (mainframe and Cloud) together and in doing so, increase the supply of mainframe programmers. It is a brilliant strategy which will provide more opportunity for mainframe programmers who are not yet ready to retire, web programmers who would like to increase their worth and those individuals who possess both skillsets.

    The article is a bit technical, but I believe the link between mainframe and cloud programming is indisputable. You can read more about the reality of the direction of mainframe computing at: