Part 6: Innovation Blog Series – Bridging the Skills Gap

The first blog in this series, “Can IT Face a Future Living in the Past?” remarked that ‘IT debt’ and ‘disruptive technologies’ are becoming important labels in today’s IT and commercial world. This, the final blog in a series of six, explores the issues surrounding IT skills, and how a solution is readily available through unifying processes and technology.

The incompatibility of old and new

The skills gap – the deficiency in a given organisation or body in terms of IT skills required to meet current or emerging business requirements – is a problem that pervades the IT industry and has become serious enough even for governments to intervene.

A variety of reasons have been given to explain the current crisis surrounding IT skills:

  • Lack of appropriate higher education investment
  • The prevalence of a silo mentality throughout the IT industry, reducing efficiency and leading to a failing collective
  • As technology continues to evolve swiftly, businesses have failed to take action to update their skills pool appropriately – creating a gap between what they can do and what they would like to do
  • The tendency for more established skills – such as mainframe infrastructure and COBOL development – to diminish as that earlier generation of staff look to retire.

Skills deficiency is seen as a key contributory factor in IT debt, a problem measured at $1Tr by 2015 (Gartner).

More established programming languages, such as COBOL and PL/I, are not commonly taught today, so an unwelcome gap is expanding between the senior programmers and the newly graduated, who are learning the newer languages such as Objective-C, HTML5, C# and Java. The loss of expertise as these experienced programmers retire will lead to increased costs, as inexperienced developers spend more time trying to deal with their mainframe applications.  This intense learning means the likelihood of errors is pretty high, which leads to the risk of poor quality and even application outages.

With developers leading a blinkered existence by separately using either old or new technology, but never both, we cannot expect to have a functional or efficient system within an organization.

What caused the problem?

Technology has evolved such that what is available now, and today’s market requirements, bear little resemblance to the original incarnations. This has created a chasm of understanding, process, technical differences, which is far from easy to bridge.

How bad is it?

Let’s take a look at how the IT world is being affected by the skills crisis. According to CompTIA, Downers Grove, Ill., March 12, 2012, the non-profit association for the IT industry, “eight in ten organizations say their business operations are impacted by gaps in the skill sets of their information technology (IT) staffs”.

Echoing this are the results in the Computing IT skills survey 2012, published by Computing, which says that Android, HTML5 and Java will be commonplace in the next few years, but more established mainframe and other Enterprise server system skills, from a business point of view, are more critical than ever. Ross Bentley on comments that the demand for COBOL skills is on the rise: “many companies, especially in the financial sector, are still benefiting from existing … assets.

Furthermore, a recent global survey by Vanson Bourne found that the UK has the largest number of CIOs (12%) that believe 25% of their mainframe skilled staff will retire in the next five years.

The situation looks set to deteriorate, “We are creating unfilled jobs. We have a shortage. This shortage is going to get worse. It’s a problem that’s approaching dimensions of a genuine crisis”, Microsoft Counsel Brad Smith told a Brooking Institution panel recently.

How to build the bridge: unifying the old and new

If the skills gap is causing a huge problem in the IT industry, how can it be tackled?

There is a way. Unify.

Unify Education.

How can we bridge this skills gap between old and new developers then? Accepting that there is a generation gap in terms of key technical knowledge, and that the older generation are soon to retire, the new generation of IT professional must be trained up. The answer starts with education. Young developers need to be encouraged and more industry relevant IT qualifications and further educational courses need to be introduced.

The UK government has earmarked funds to tackle this problem and other governments have their own initiatives. It will be crucial for these courses to concentrate not only on teaching new programming languages, but also to keep a strong emphasis on  prevalent languages which are still very relevant to business, such as COBOL and PL/I.

In the decisive quest to prevent IT agility from being held back, universities have already begun to implement skills-sharing programs. Even Estonia for example, plans to have school children as young as six learning how to code. America is taking decisive action with many of their “state” universities enrolling in programs to teach COBOL programming, including Columbus State University, Durham College and Texas A&M.

Those keenest to adopt COBOL classroom training and education are the US, Canada, Brazil, Germany, France and some in Malaysia, and the Philippines. Crucial skills, such as applying a systematic approach to problem solving and designing, testing, documenting and deploying CICS or COBOL programs based on specifications, will equip a new generation of developers and programmers with the kind of knowledge that the world of IT has been screaming out for.

Unify Process and Technology.

Accepting that a silo mentality builds barriers and blocks teamwork, steps need to be taken to remove artificial barriers in IT departments. For example, all developers should be able to work within the same corporate development environment, regardless of technology choice. The process for building, testing and deploying applications should be seamless, irrespective of platform or technology. The solution: start from a position of strength

The COBOL language may not be the most obvious choice to help address the skills gap, but the latest Micro Focus Visual COBOL technology provides all the necessary components to help unify the organizational discipline to help resolve the skills gap.

Build the next generation of core system developers – Micro Focus is making great strides to support academia in educating the next generation of skilled COBOL developers. With over 200 universities signed up, organizations are encouraged to seek out their local university and lobby them to provide appropriate technology in their curriculum. Organizations including Micro Focus are delighted to support such initiatives.

Free up your development process and skills pool – Micro Focus Visual COBOL sits inside the same IDE as all other contemporary languages so the COBOL team can work alongside, and on the same projects, as the Java or C# developers. Not only does this allow delivery schedules and integrated development and testing activities to be closely coordinated, but it also provides an immediately-available learning environment to enable other programmers to pick up sparse COBOL skills. Ironically perhaps, because of its readability and structure, COBOL is a very easy language to learn – one C# programmer was debugging an unknown COBOL application “within an hour” (source: Micro Focus customer).

Micro Focus is looking to offer educational and personal editions of its core products to allow higher education and freelance developers the ability to train themselves on this new generation of technology.

Conclusion – crisis, what crisis?

So the IT skills gap can be and is being tackled, by unifying processes and technology. In future, we need to make sure that there is a bridge between new and existing technologies, and be more alert to the issues which begin to develop.

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1 Comment

  • Jason Sprenger

    Skills gaps do exist and are getting worse in the economy today, and it’s prudent for communities to invest in solutions. One of them is career and technical education (CTE), which has proven to produce a return in areas like improved student achievement, career prospects, more trained workers for the jobs of today and improved community vitality.

    The Industry Workforce Needs Council is a new group of businesses working together to spotlight skills gaps and advocate for CTE as a means of bridging them. For stats and other information, or to join the effort, visit

    Jason Sprenger, for the IWNC

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