COBOL, Anyone?

Tackling the IT skills gap needs to begin at the university level.

GUEST COLUMN | by Ed Airey

CREDIT micro focusThe news is saturated with the hardships of young graduates unable to attain jobs. And, while job growth in the technology industry is ahead of the overall employment rate, a recent study from Dice shows that turnover is less than 9 percent. This means fewer opportunities are available for graduates, as existing technology workers are less likely to leave their jobs.

The opportunities that do exist are not often ones that graduates prepare for. Not everyone can get a job at the latest and greatest start-up developing mobile or gaming technology in the newest set of programming languages. Some jobs require a deeper knowledge of enterprise programming languages and an interest in getting into the more complex and technical aspects in the industry.

If we don’t drive interest in this type of IT, the impact on business could be brutal. I’m concerned that graduates may be misguided into taking courses that only heighten the competition to get jobs, but are ignoring the potential to really stand out and differentiate themselves from the crowd by learning critical IT skills that businesses really need and are searching for today.

Many of our back-end infrastructures rely on certain older programming languages that are not going to be retired any time soon. It makes sense for graduates to consider learning these enterprise programming languages as this skill set is one sought after by many of today’s top companies.

We recently conducted a research study with over 100 universities around the world to determine how enterprise programming languages, such as COBOL, are being taught today and found that we still have a long way to go to bridge this gap. We found that nearly three quarters of academic institutions that offered IT courses don’t even have COBOL programming as part of their curriculum, despite 71 percent believing that today’s business organizations will continue to rely on applications built using the COBOL language for the next 10+ years.

So if the COBOL language is to persevere as expected, where will the next generation of talent come from to support it? This is actually quite scary to think about when you consider that COBOL currently supports more than 70 percent of all business data processing functions and that the language is present within 85 percent of the world’s business applications.  We are very much reliant on the services that COBOL technology provides for us.

While more than half of the academics surveyed said they believed COBOL programming should be on their curriculum, it doesn’t reflect the reality – of the quarter confirming COBOL programming was part of their curriculum, only 18 percent had made this a curriculum requirement, while the remaining 9 percent made it an elective component.

As a business professional within this industry, I believe there is more we can do to encourage academics to help guide students into learning enterprise languages such as COBOL. Last year, the largest volume of skilled developers introduced to the job market by their academic institutions was Java programmers (32 percent), followed by C# and C++ programmers (16 percent). In comparison, only 5  percent were COBOL developers.

It appears newer languages are proving to be the popular choice, but surely the more language skills a developer learns the better? Having a mixed language capability will increase personal marketability and – ultimately – employability.

The student perception of languages such as COBOL is that it is considered ‘un-cool,’ outdated or even ‘dead’. However, the current business use and reliance on the COBOL language requires that a skills pool is available to support and maintain these systems.

So what can we do? How we do change perception? Well firstly, we need to better educate students before they select their IT courses. At the same time, we should increase academics’ knowledge of how these skills relate, once the student is out of university – nearly a third of the educators were surveyed didn’t know if the programming skills of their graduates, no matter the language, helped them actually gain employment. As a COBOL community, we can certainly improve awareness and visibility in this area.

Finally, there is a need for greater collaboration between academic universities and business organizations. By joining forces, these partners can change the shape and impact of the skills crisis. We know this situation well as we offer an Academic Program that provides universities with greater visibility into the needs of today’s businesses so they can more accurately shape their curriculum to meet the needs of the community. Equally, the business community has a partner in facing this challenge and a future accessible talent pool of new development resources.

What this all boils down to is that the answer to the skills challenge requires an ongoing community-based collaborative effort. Such partner collaboration will bolster academic offerings and market recognition, but also deliver the next generation of developers needed to meet the business challenges of tomorrow.

Ed Airey is product marketing director for the COBOL solutions at Micro Focus. Write to: academic@microfocus.com Or visit: http://www.microfocus.com/

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