IBM Targets COBOL Skills Shortage Brought On By Pandemic

US states are struggling to find programmers skilled in 60-year-old COBOL programming language as coronavirus puts pressure on ageing government mainframes

IBM has teamed up with the Linux Foundation’s Open Mainframe Project to combat an unexpected secondary effect of the coronavirus pandemic – a shortage of programmers skilled in the 60-year-old COBOL programming language.

Governments worldwide are processing unprecedented numbers of unemployment benefit claims, and in the US this has put pressure on legacy mainframe systems that use COBOL.

Invented in 1959 as an interoperable programming language for business applications, COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) has served as the basis for a range of mission-critical banking and financial services applications, including in governments.

IBM, which still sells COBOL-compatible mainframes, estimates there are 220 billion lines of COBOL in use today.

An IBM Z mainframe.  Image credit: IBM
An IBM Z mainframe. Image credit: IBM

Skills shortage

But many COBOL-based systems are rarely modified by programmers, and COBOL-trained engineers can be difficult to find.

At present, many US states are needing to scale their systems to handle the increase in demand, while some also need to make changes to take  into account new parameters for unemployment payment eligibility, all within a short space of time, IBM said.

IBM Z Ecosystem vice president Meredith Stowell said the company is working “closely” with states to help them address such issues.

To address the immediate and temporary need for COBOL programmers, the Open Mainframe Project and IBM have developed the Calling all COBOL Programmers Forum, a talent portal allowing employers to connect with available and experienced COBOL engineers.

IBM plans to use the portal to link employers to retired skilled veterans, students who have completed COBOL courses and professionals looking to volunteer their services.

Programming courses

The new COBOL Technical Forum is a temporary resource through which experienced COBOL programmers can provide free advice and expertise during the coronavirus crisis, including information on managing issues, learning new techniques and expediting solutions.

Finally, the two organisations are launching an Open Source COBOL Training course designed to teach COBOL to beginners and refresh experienced professionals.

IBM worked with clients and an institute of higher education to develop an in-depth COBOL Programming with VSCode course that is to be made publicly available this week at no charge.

The curriculum is to be turned into a self-service video course with hands-on labs and tutorials available via Coursera and other learning platforms in May, as well as on IBM’s on training platform free of charge.

IBM said it also continues to invest in ongoing, long-term reqirements for COBOL skills through a variety of initiatives.

The company has made further information available via its website.