Main image of article COBOL Developers' Last Great Task: Transitioning Away From It

By programming-language standards, COBOL is unbelievably ancient. Launched 63 years ago, it still powers mainframes within governments and large institutions, even as many of the developers who’ve mastered it retire or die. When will COBOL finally fade away?

A new (and interesting) article in IEEE Spectrum breaks down the current state of COBOL—and concludes that an increasing number of organizations finally want to move off COBOL-powered mainframes onto other platforms. While COBOL is a very stable language, it doesn’t play well with the new technologies that power modern enterprise, including the cloud and A.I. 

For developers tasked with these transitions, it’s not just figuring out a way to port applications to new platforms; they must also account for all the workarounds designed to compensate for the aging language’s inflexibility. “Developers say, ‘I need to make a change, but I’m too busy to make the COBOL changes, so I’m not going to touch the existing COBOL program, but I’ll add three more steps outside of COBOL, with Excel spreadsheets or something else, top apply the changes,’” Sid Mohanram, senior vice president of software engineering at Verisk, told IEEE Spectrum. “So now you have this COBOL program that’s very dated, and a bunch of other things that are workarounds to get the final result.”  

According to Emsi Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, COBOL is indeed a fading skill, with open jobs expected to decline -11.5 percent over the next two years. However, there’s relatively strong demand for such skills right now, with some 18,588 open job postings over the past 12 months. 

Moreover, COBOL remains relatively well-paying: jobs that include the skill have a median annual salary of $92,421. In an unsurprising twist, some 85.7 percent of mainframe developer jobs request COBOL skills, compared to 0.7 percent of software developer/engineer jobs. Some 1.6 percent of computer programmer jobs require knowledge of the language, along with 3.6 percent of programmer/analyst positions. 

Chances are very good that many of those related positions will have to do with transitioning data and services from an older mainframe onto a more modern platform. It’s a big and messy job, but someone has to do it—and they might make quite a bit of money in the process.