IBM, Open Mainframe Project launch initiative to help train COBOL coders

State agencies are struggling to find actively working COBOL engineers who can update their unemployment benefit systems to factor in new parameters for unemployment eligibility.

The economic shutdown due to the novel coronavirus pandemic has caused a massive surge in unemployment benefit claims nationwide. Unfortunately, in many states across the US, unemployment benefit systems are crumbling under the pressure and exposing the shortcomings of legacy mainframes powered by the 60-year-old COBOL programming language.

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Invented in 1959, COBOL -- short for Common Business-Oriented Language -- is considered the first truly interoperable programming language and has served as the foundation of most mission critical banking and financial services applications, including within government agencies. 

Despite its age, COBOL is reliable and is still widely used -- there's an estimated 220 billion lines of COBOL still in use today. IBM, one of the founding organizations behind COBOL, continues to offer mainframes compatible with the language.

The issue with COBOL now is that there are few programmers left with the skills to maintain legacy COBOL applications. Specifically, state agencies are struggling to find actively working COBOL engineers who can update their unemployment benefit systems to factor in new parameters for unemployment eligibility.

To address this skills gap, IBM and Linux Foundation's Open Mainframe Project have launched a new program to help connect states with programmers who have COBOL language skills that are proving key in the push to manage the surging number of unemployment claims nationwide. 

The programs include the following:

  • Calling all COBOL Programmers Forum – A new forum where developers and programmers who would like to volunteer or are available for hire can post their profiles and credentials. This is open to those looking for employment, retired skilled veterans, students who have successfully completed COBOL courses, or professionals wanting to volunteer.
  • COBOL Technical Forum - A new resource for being actively monitored by experienced COBOL programmers providing free advice and expertise. This tool will allow all levels of programmers to manage issues, learn new techniques and expedite solutions needed as programmers alter critical code.
  • Open Source COBOL Training – A new open source course designed to teach COBOL to beginners and refresh experienced professionals. IBM partnered with clients and universities to develop this course which it is available for free.

"We've seen customers need to scale their systems to handle the increase in demand and IBM has been actively working with clients to manage those applications," said Meredith Stowell, VP of IBM Z Ecosystem. "There are also some states that are in need of additional programming skills to make changes to COBOL. These changes to the code are required to take into account the new parameters for unemployment payment eligibility, in a very short timeframe. We're closely working with these clients to respond to their needs and mobilize to find solutions to the challenges they face."

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