Main image of article COBOL Comeback: What You Need to Know About This Old Language

COBOL (“Common Business-Oriented Language”) has been around for more than 60 years, but it has recently been in demand due to some government agency needs. In the most prominent example, software programmers are using COBOL in state government systems to handle jobless benefits amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Most of those systems, particularly state-run systems, are written in COBOL, and they're dependent on that type of skill set to maintain, support and in many ways modernize those systems,” said Ed Airey, product director for COBOL solutions at Micro Focus. 

Brian A. Dalio, associate professor of instruction in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), also sees the increased demand among government agencies. 

“Those applications have run fine for years, maybe decades, but recent pressures on agencies because of COVID have revealed deficiencies in data processing systems that need attention,” Dalio said. 

COBOL is also a useful language for lining up data in reports because it handles formatting automatically, unlike Java, said Neal Rogers, a computer science professor at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia. Hence its presence in large databases.

In addition to government usage, COBOL has been utilized for business applications in finance and insurance. Software developers use COBOL to design systems for everything from airlines to ATMs. But mainframe systems based on COBOL have not been updated in years, in some cases. 

Companies have difficulty finding people with skills in COBOL. Indeed, Airey said, companies are looking to bridge their applications from the old to the new using COBOL, rather than rewriting them altogether to save costs. Businesses are also moving COBOL applications to the cloud. 

“It's a differentiating skill in the marketplace, particularly when you look at enterprise computing as a whole,” Airey added. “And in many ways it will command, over the long term as you develop that skill, a much higher salary.”

Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, places the current median salary for jobs involving COBOL skills at $90,000, which is a tad below the technology-industry average of $94,000 (according to the 2020 edition of the Dice Salary Report). But in desperate times, with companies scrambling to find anyone with solid COBOL skills, salaries could drift higher.

Training in COBOL

Some tech companies offer programs to learn COBOL. Micro Focus has a COBOL Academic Program, and IBM offers courses on its site.

Airey suggests you could learn COBOL within a day; developing knowledge of the language is the “straightforward” part. The more challenging step is understanding the business function for real-world applications within government and finance. An internship at a financial institution or government agency, for example, can offer an effective way to gain experience in COBOL.

A Resurgence?

C, C++, Java and Python are the “mainstream languages” taught at academic institutions like UTA, but COBOL made an appearance in Dalio’s “Design and Construction of Compilers” class this year. Dalio is teaching a “mini-version” of the language because of its recent popularity.

Demand in COBOL is increasing because of the retirement of a generation of programmers, according to Dalio: “Over the past few years, more and more of these programmers are leaving the workforce, and replacing them has been tricky since the areas they come from are not seen as ‘sexy’ by younger programmers.” 

It all comes down to maintaining legacy code, even if new applications aren’t being written. “Depending on whose estimates one wants to believe, there are billions of lines of COBOL code that need to be maintained,” Dalio said. “That backlog is not going to go away anytime soon.”