While some say careers for mainframe programmers are dimming more than they're dying, their outlook is pressured by business trends that can seem like Catch-22.   By Joyce Routson | February 2008
Times certainly are changing for mainframe computer programmers, with fewer jobs available and little call for COBOL. But don't pronounce them extinct just yet. Despite the advent of Windows-running PCs, client servers and .Net, the supposedly moribund mainframe refuses to die. "The point of view is that the mainframe industry is dead. It's not," says Jim Michael, treasurer of Share, an IBM user group. "We're raptors and we're back." It's true that many businesses have moved their information storage to Windows-based servers or outsourcers. Proponents say doing so is cheaper, more accessible in a Web-based environment, and saves on real estate. It may even help the environment: Recently northern California's Pacific Gas & Electric started running television commercials showing racks of computers being moved out the door to save on energy. However, many large corporations have heavily invested in mainframe platforms to store their key data. Asks Michael: "Given that so many large corporations are heavily invested in those platforms, how do they successfully ensure they¿re maintained?" Dimming, But Still There   While it can be argued careers for mainframe programmers are dimming more than they're dying, their outlook is being impacted by a variety of business trends, some of which sound like Catch-22. For example: Because older mainframe programmers are retiring, there's a need to hire replacements to maintain the servers in operation. However, some companies are getting rid of those servers - because there aren't enough people to replace their retiring mainframe experts. That kind of situation puts the squeeze on contractors, some of whom are finding it difficult to command the salaries they earned 10 years ago, unless they're willing to be flexible and consider relocation, some say. In addition, mainframes are becoming more automated, requiring fewer specialists to help them operate. On the other hand, new blood is needed. It's not a shortage yet, says Michael, but "I think there is more demand than supply. It's not as easy to hire as many as needed." Recruiters are Wary   Recruiters don't usually share his view. Philip Sawyer, president of Commercial Programming Systems, an IT staffing firm based in Studio City, Calif., describes demand as "fairly infrequent. I have two customers who still need IBM experience, both government entities." In 2007, Sawyer placed fewer than five people in mainframe jobs, whereas seven years ago he might have placed 20. "I haven't seen a position for a mainframe programmer in five years," adds David Fink, an account executive with Vermillion Group in Des Moines, Iowa. "There's not much demand at all." Sawyer believes there's still enough talent out there for wages to remain static for contractors, at about $50 to $60 an hour. According to recruiter Robert Half International, average starting salaries for mainframe systems programmers in 2007 ranged from $52,250 to $70,750. That compared to $56,250 to $90,250 for applications development programmers/analysts and $50,250 to $94,750 for software developers. Still, those involved with Share say there are plenty of jobs available. Kristine Harper, who heads up the organization's zNextGen project, says, "I can't imagine anyone not being able to find a job on mainframes. Plenty of companies have jobs." This year Share says it's reached 23,000 students and has expressions of interest from more than 200 academic institutions about pursuing a curriculum. For old-time big-iron workers who may want to transfer their technical skills, it may be tough going, warns Sawyer. "It may be hard to move to an object-oriented visual language," he says. He advises learning other softer, people skills such as support analyst, project analyst, "something other than programming." Joyce Routson is a freelance writer based in California.