Looking for Job Security? Try Cobol

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Bridging the Old and the New

Mainframes aren't going anywhere mainly because they do an extremely reliable job with high-volume transaction processing. But increasingly, companies are benefiting from integrating legacy mainframe Cobol applications with the rest of the enterprise, to leverage their power and work toward real-time business operations.

SOA, for instance, opens all sorts of opportunities to expose Cobol apps to the wider world. "Many mainframe users are actively pursuing SOA as a way to integrate their legacy Cobol apps with newer nonmainframe apps," explains Jeff Gould of Interop Systems.

"There's a new kind of job emerging for which people need to have 'bridging skills,' where they understand the importance of existing systems and how to integrate those with modern systems and deploy Cobol into modern architectures," points out Arunn Ramadoss, head of the Micro Focus Academic Connections Program, which partners with colleges, universities, and other institutions to teach Cobol to students.

By 2007, the number of universities and colleges offering Cobol classes was dwindling. But that has reversed dramatically. In May of last year, Micro Focus launched its academic program to focus on Cobol as well as other core IT skills by providing member universities with free access to requisite technology and teaching tools.

[ Can'tget enough Cobol? Try Neil McAllister's take on California's Cobol conundrum. ]

Since last May, Micro Focus has signed up at least one college or university every week; in late September, it surpassed 50 U.S. academic institutions. "We're expecting 7,500 students to graduate with Cobol skills next year, and in the years after we hope to boost that number to 10,000 or 15,000," Ramadoss says.

While Micro Focus boasts what appears to be the largest university program, would-be Cobol programmers do have other options, including community colleges, private so-called business schools, and IT training classes.

Landing a Job in a Cobol Shop

Deloitte's Conner says that the firm is "already seeing significant demand for Cobol expertise," especially in financial services firms, where Cobol continues to be prevalent. So what does it take to get a position at a company that needs Cobol skills?

No, you don't need to get a crew cut. In fact, the desired qualifications match those for many other IT jobs. Prospective employers are looking for Cobol people who understand business, have a diverse skill set, and possess the ability to learn new technologies as necessary, according to Lou Washington, a senior marketing manager in Cincom's control manufacturing business solutions group.

J.D. Williams, a U.K.-based direct home shopping company, considers Cobol an essential skill when hiring programmers, according to IT training manager Mike Madden: "We've got a development shop of about 100 people, and 60 of them know Cobol. They're all actively coding in it or using it in their analysis." The company has a huge legacy system built on Cobol and Assembler that includes more than 5,000 programs.

There's even work for those who prefer -- or are at least willing to take -- short-term gigs. Andrew Larkin, an IT project manager in the legal field, learned Cobol in 1998 to leverage the boom in IT jobs due to the Y2K craze; since then, he's found that "the primary suppliers of Cobol jobs are either very large companies looking for maintenance hires or head hunting firms with contract positions to fill, most of which last less than a year."

J.D. Williams' Madden contends that contract work is a solid fallback plan for Cobol programmers. "I would quite happily go back to being a freelance Cobol programmer because that's quite secure, too," the IT training manager says.

Retired programmer Kees believes that IT shops "could very well still have Cobol shreds existing" decades into the future. "Cobol will be around for some time -- maybe till 2050, I don't know," Kees adds. "But I would bet it will still be in use when I croak."

Ephraim Schwartz contributed to this report.

This story, "Looking for Job Security? Try Cobol" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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