The secret to attracting mainframe talent during a skills crisis

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The technology industry is in the midst of a hurricane, with leaders balancing tough economic conditions, budget pressures and customer pressure for the latest innovations and technology-driven services. Between focusing on business performance and customer needs and strengthening their organization by building a strong talent pool, technology leaders’ priorities are understandably divided.

What makes this pressure even more challenging is the fact that tech talent is becoming harder to come by, something that is particularly felt in the mainframe arena. New research of Deloitte found that 79% of business leaders ranked acquiring the right resources and skills as their number one mainframe-related challenge.

defying the odds

There is a unique and challenging set of factors that make it difficult to find mainframe talent: an aging workforce, combined with new workers who don’t know or aren’t convinced that the mainframe holds a future for them.

Organizations need a new approach to rise to this challenge and inspire new talent to pursue a career on the mainframe.


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Why the mainframe matters

Mainframes are still the foundation for much of modern IT. Across industries, 30 billion business transactions are expected to be executed per day, with 92 of the top 100 banks, 67 of the Fortune 100 companies, four of the top five airlines, and seven of the top 10 global retailers rely on technology to run their IT environments. This reputation has been built because the mainframe is reliable, secure, and capable of processing large amounts of data, making it perfectly positioned to run mission-critical applications.

Throughout the industry, IT teams are working to modernize their systems, and the mainframe is undergoing a similar shift. However, this does not mean that the mainframe will disappear. Instead, we are seeing the mainframe adapt to a hybrid structure where the best of mainframe meets the best of cloud. The result is a new infrastructure that needs people with mainframe knowledge to guide and direct this new future of modern IT.

While the mainframe may seem daunting for those starting their careers, it is an area that opens many doors in the technology industry. It’s crucial that we inspire IT talent to consider the mainframe and support them as they get started in the industry.

The possibilities of a mainframe career

There are several outlets for a career on the mainframe. At its core, it is diverse, spanning a variety of functions, from product development to capacity management, from operations to compliance, and each function is in high demand. Perhaps the most tantalizing possibility, however, is that through your mainframe skills, you will have the opportunity to be an integral component of a company’s technology strategy.

Modernization and integration pathways are creating opportunities for people with mainframe skills to get involved in the developments that move an organization beyond the limitations imposed by its legacy IT state and closer to its ambitious future.

The trick for leaders is to build an effective talent pipeline that supports people throughout their careers, from developing skills to putting those skills to use in meaningful ways in the workplace. Programs like mainframe academies can be valuable entry points for people entering the field. Building an effective pathway that emphasizes flexibility and diversity is an important way that organizations can support new workers as they learn skills and advance through their team with new opportunities.

These types of programs must coexist with an organizational culture that encourages participation from all levels of the company, from technical experts to global leadership. Bringing different team members into this “technical training community” gives people the opportunity to take a mentoring role and train new recruits through their experience. This type of program adds a further dimension to your training, providing high-level experience and on-the-job experience, which will be key to giving your new hires a well-rounded experience of a mainframe role. Fostering a learning community inspires your new hires to stay stuck in your organization, while also encouraging more experienced team members to invest time in the broader team through mentoring the next generation of mainframe talent. .

Training the next generation

It is crucial that training covers all mainframe disciplines both in a virtual environment and in person. Remote training can be just as effective as in-person courses, allowing new learners to review the content on their own time. Online courses, such as WebX or CPD, can be useful tools to prepare your team for the start of their career. This kind of flexible approach communicates to new talent that you are committed to their training, ambition and skills development; essentially, that you are not afraid to invest time and money in their careers and that you are motivated to excel.

Tailoring your programs to individual skill sets is a great way to inspire all candidates, regardless of their previous experience. Design your program to challenge each person without overwhelming them, and give every prospective employee the opportunity to try mainframe and feel adequately prepared to meet mainframe challenges outside of training.

Creating multiple entry points into your programs is an effective way to separate your candidates and tier any training to fit a variety of experiences. An entry-level level, for example, might encompass basic skills, which you can then build on with lab experience before advancing your candidates to permanent placement within your workforce.

Additionally, establishing steps and phases for candidates to work through gives your program structure and clear progress markers. So if your candidates are struggling to develop a certain set of skills, for example, they’ll be able to assess where they’re going wrong and what aspects to specifically address. This process works to the benefit of the candidate while ensuring that successful people are built in the field.

Preparing your candidates in this holistic way builds their skills while gradually exposing them to the demands of the industry and showing them the value of working in an industry like mainframe.

Why the future is bright for the mainframe

There are many new mainframe opportunities on the horizon. As leaders continue to integrate and modernize, we are seeing the mainframe adapt to the needs of modern businesses. Modern programming languages, for example, can increasingly be used on the mainframe. Also, as companies move their workloads from the mainframe to the cloud, we will start to see the platform being used for next-generation technologies. On top of this, we can expect to see the introduction of more DevOps and self-service approaches to improve the efficiency of running mainframes.

So the trajectory for a mainframe career is set to blossom. However, without the right support systems, talent will walk away from the industry before it is properly considered. The industry is currently under pressure to fill the skills gap, and as it stands, the tactics implemented by many are not inspiring new talent to join the industry and support the mainframe as it evolves.

Companies looking to be a driving force in training, mentoring and other talent reward schemes will be the ones that build a strong mainframe team and benefit in the long run. Not acting is no longer an option. IT organizations must look to build a strong foundation now if they expect the mainframe to be a valuable part of their future and not leave it behind by gathering cobwebs in their past.

Mike Pennaz is head of mainframe strategy, integration and practice at unison.


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