Mainframes fall short on technical skills

Availability of IT professionals with mainframe capabilities is shrinking in Asia, despite ongoing need for such expertise, say market observers.

The availability of mainframe technical expertise in Asia is falling, even though there is still demand for such skills, as these IT professionals move into other specialist areas, say recruiters.

Annie Lim, senior consultant at Robert Walters' IT commerce permanent division, said in an e-mail interview that the pool of mainframe talent is increasingly limited because most IT professionals today are trained on more popular technologies, such as Windows and Unix.

Peter Ferries, executive manager of the specialist IT recruitment division at Randstad, noted that although some companies are moving away from the mainframe, a large number of organizations, particularly in the financial and insurance sectors, still use mainframes.

"So, as mainframe specialists continue to retrain in other technologies or move out of this specialization entirely...mainframe user organizations will continue to find it increasingly difficult to source these technical skills," Ferries said in an e-mail.

According to Gavin Selkirk, corporate senior vice president and general manager of CA Asia-Pacific and Japan, the availability of mainframe skills is diminishing at a time when the mainframe is enjoying a resurgence globally.

In a recent research commissioned by CA to determine the mainframe's position among European organizations, 37 percent of respondents cited a "relevant skills shortage" as a threat to their company's continued use of the platform. Some 66 percent said organizations that use mainframes would suffer from a shrinking pool of expertise.

Many Asian organizations that run mainframes are trying to cope with similar challenges, Selkirk said in an e-mail.

To address these concerns among its customers, he noted that CA established an entirely new generation of mainframe management technologies and best practices. Its Mainframe 2.0 initiative was designed to "capture the expertise earned by that older generation of IT professionals, while making the mainframe youth friendly", he said.

"In fact, much of the Mainframe 2.0 development work was carried out by some of CA's brightest youngsters," Selkirk said. The browser-based offering was designed to make the vendor's portfolio of mainframe management tools easier to handle for less-experienced IT staff.

Big Blue commits to mainframe education
Cheah Saw Pheng, Singapore general manager of IBM's systems and technology group, said the mainframe vendor runs initiatives to ensure the availability of a next generation of mainframe experts.

Its IBM Academic Initiative System z program, for instance, was started over five years ago to help tertiary institutions worldwide develop curriculum, certificates and courses, Cheah said. The initiative also provides access to working mainframe systems via hubs around the world, she added.

According to the IBMer, the program has trained over 50,000 students on mainframe and large enterprise computing in 61 countries. Within Asia, colleges and universities in Australia, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and India either have, or are developing, a mainframe skills curriculum.

In 2006, IBM also initiated a five-year, US$100 million mainframe simplification program to enable technology administrators and computer programmers to more easily program, manage and administer mainframes.

Cheah said the initiative was designed to make the use of mainframes more intuitive and GUI-based.

IBM dominates most mainframe markets worldwide, except Japan, but saw mainframe revenues fall 39 percent in its recent quarter.