Looking for Job Security? Try Cobol

A career as a Cobol programmer might not be as sexy as slinging Java code or scripting in Ruby, but if you buckle down and learn hoary old Cobol, you could land one of the safest, most secure jobs in IT.

Analyst reports indicate that Cobol salaries are on the upswing. The language is easy to learn, there's a healthy demand for the skills, and offshore Cobol programmers are in short supply -- plus, the language itself holds the promise of longevity. All that loose talk about mainframes going away has subsided, and companies committed to big iron need Cobol pros to give them love.

[ Tolearn about other skills in high-demand during tight times, read " Recession-proof IT jobs." ]

In a troubled economy, with analysts forecasting IT spending slowdowns, secure IT positions could quickly become scarcer than they are today. Seasoned Cobol programmers, in contrast, "should be in pretty good shape job-wise. If they have a position at an organization that intends to keep its legacy Cobol apps, then they are probably set for life," says industry analyst Jeff Gould, director of research at Interop Systems. "Many mainframe customers with large mission-critical Cobol apps are locked into the mainframe platform. Often there is no equivalent packaged app, and it proves to be just too expensive to port the legacy Cobol to newer platforms like Intel or AMD servers."

Why Cobol Is Alive and Well

William Conner, a senior manager in Deloitte's technology integration practice, comments that "salaries for Cobol programmers have been rising in recent years due to a lack of supply. Demand is outstripping supply because many Cobol programmers are reaching retirement age and college leavers tend to focus on Java, XML, and other modern languages."

Deloitte also found that three-fifths of respondents are actually developing new and strategic Cobol-based applications. Yes, right here in 2008.

Retired Cobol programmer William C. Kees, who coded in Cobol for 25 years, says that the language is easy to learn and that he mastered it without taking any classes. Another career Cobol programmer requesting anonymity seconds that sentiment: "It's easy to learn, read, and follow. After looking at code for .Net or VisualBasic, give me Cobol any day. At least it's readable."

What's more, Cobol programmers are not as prone to having their job outsourced, according to Brian Keane, CEO for Dextrys, an outsourcing company based in China and the United States. "The Chinese don't have mainframe experience. Because Chinese computer science graduates have come late to the technology table they are starting with the latest architectures and systems and don't have the experience with legacy languages and systems," he says.

Latin American countries are in a situation similar to that of the United States, according to Gabriel Rozman, executive vice president for emerging markets at Tata Consultancy Services. "Many Latin countries are still stuck with legacy mainframes where Cobol is a common skill," says Rozman, "so that anyone who has [that and] the latest Java skills, for example, would be sought after."

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