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Bringing New Talent Into the Mainframe Workforce

How Russell Tobin, Per Scholas and IBM brought new talent into the mainframe workforce.

Darnell Brown, mainframe bootcamp graduate

Image by Jonathan Robert Willis

“I found out about the course from my mum,” says Darnell Brown, one of six students from Cincinnati, Ohio, who recently graduated from a five-week boot camp program introducing them to the fundamentals of mainframe computing. “I knew nothing about mainframes at all. I’d barely even heard of them, and I’m an IT student.”

Brown, also a student intern at the University of Cincinnati, hopes to pursue a career in networking and security.

“I don’t think anyone needs a background in IT to excel in this course though,” Brown adds. “I have an affinity for science and math, so I could do it, but you get the knowledge at the pace you can handle it. The mainframe is broad and doesn’t have to be heavily technical if you don’t want it to be. It’s more important to focus on the logical aspects of it.”

The boot camp Brown found so eye-opening was convened by IT educational organization Per Scholas. The pilot project is designed to meet pressing needs in the U.S. today. The initiative addressed the growing shortage of IT professionals with experience in IBM Z* system architecture. It also aimed to provide opportunities for people who haven’t had the funding or educational background typically needed to get on the first step of the ladder in the industry.

“We always look for a passion for technology. It could be someone who is a keen gamer or took apart their PC to see what was inside or provides tech support for their family."
–Paul Cashen, managing director, Per Scholas Cincinnati

Based on the results of the first cohort of students, and Brown’s experiences, the pilot appears to have been a success. “Everyone in the program has either resumed work with their former employers in the mainframe field or has moved on to accept offers elsewhere,” says Brown.

The Scope of the Challenge

Many businesses are absolutely reliant on mainframe systems for critical applications within their organizations. This is particularly true in sectors such as banking, insurance, government, transportation and retail where raw throughput and reliability are essential for business. The IBM Z platform has proven highly adaptable to the needs of the cloud economy, and with its ability to run thousands of virtual machines simultaneously, it consistently outperforms commodity hardware and host cross-platform applications. 71 percent of Fortune 500 companies use mainframes.

The trouble is that traditional mainframe skills, including programming languages like COBOL, have quietly been dropped from formal training programs in learning institutions and within the workplace. Competition for talent often focuses on high-profile skills around mobile, cloud and artificial intelligence rather than infrastructure, so many young IT workers haven’t been exposed to mainframe computing and the opportunities it presents.

IBM predicts that by 2020, between 37,200 and 84,000 positions for IT workers with mainframe skills could be vacant. Among its mainframe client base, 90 percent of customers are concerned about recruitment in the next five years. A full 49 percent say that they’re “very concerned.” (See for a comprehensive investigation of the issue.) Nowhere is this problem more acute than in the financial hubs of the world—especially in cities like Cincinnati that have a high concentration of banking and insurance firms.

Employers Speak

Alicia Speed, a technology recruiting manager at staffing advisory firm Russell Tobin, became aware of the issue around mainframe skills via her clients in the Cincinnati business community.

“We received a few requests to help out companies with mainframe recruiting problems which I took notice of,” Speed says. “My previous employer had been clear that they had no interest, but most people in this space are over 50 and thinking about retirement. We need a new pipeline of talent.”

“What you need are problem solvers and analytical thinkers with the right soft skills. The tech skills can be trained."
–Alicia Speed, technology recruiting manager, Russell Tobin

The way companies recruit to fill these gaps, however, has to change. “If you’re looking for the right acronyms, you’re limiting yourself,” she says. “What you need are problem solvers and analytical thinkers with the right soft skills. The tech skills can be trained.”

With the backing of Russell Tobin, Speed began researching the issue. She came across programs in Kentucky that were recruiting miners from shuttered pits in Appalachia into workforce reinvestment programs. Through these programs, they received training in mainframe skills to help equip them for an in-demand career.

Inspired by the idea of using the skills shortage to also bring new talent into the IT workforce, Speed’s local director, Mike Krieger, introduced her to not-for-profit educational outfit Per Scholas.

Per Scholas specializes in training people from overlooked communities and equipping them with in-demand IT skills. It partners with local corporations in six cities to identify opportunities and trains people for roles from the support desk to cybersecurity.

Training is provided at no cost: All the students need is commitment, a GED or high school diploma and the right aptitude for problem solving. 85 percent of Per Scholas students graduate within 14 weeks of starting a course—and 80 percent of graduates find jobs in IT. The typical Per Scholas student enters a program earning a salary of around $10,000 a year. Post-training, this increases to $37,000 or more.

“There are different requirements for different courses,” says Per Scholas Cincinnati Managing Director Paul Cashen. “But we always look for a passion for technology. It could be someone who is a keen gamer or took apart their PC to see what was inside or provides tech support for their family.”

Planning Processes

Speed, Cashen and their colleagues put together a round table of interested parties, which included IBM and representatives from local firms such as Western & Southern and Reed Elsevier/Lexis Nexis to discuss the issue. This led to 18 months of development for the pilot program. The course itself was underwritten by JP Morgan Chase.

“Everyone pitched in to build it,” says IBM Z Skills Offering Manager Christy Schroeder. “It was a risk for everyone involved as we didn’t know how it would turn out, but in the end, more than 100 people applied for a place.”

Seven students were selected for the pilot program, although only six would eventually start the course. This included two candidates already employed at Western & Southern who were looking to move to more technical positions within their firm. All six students graduated.

“We don't receive a lot of career training in U.S. schools, and learning how to prepare a resume, conduct myself in an interview, what an interviewer is thinking and expecting—that was gold."
–Darnell Brown

Much of the coursework developed for the pilot was derived from IBM’s online learning platform and the Master the Mainframe syllabus. Adapting these materials for classroom use was critical, adds Per Scholas’ Cashen. While the online training has made learning more accessible, it’s not always an option for those most in need.

“It’s so key to have the person-to-person touch in our model, especially considering the communities we work in,” Cashen says. “Many folks haven’t been in a work setting before and they need to understand the expectations that are there.”

To teach the course, Per Scholas drew on the experience of Lynn Beirl, a training specialist from Thrive Impact Sourcing. The firm is an IT talent incubator that has partnered with Per Scholas since Thrive’s inception. Beirl began her own career as a mainframe specialist and facilitated the classroom sessions during the pilot.

“It was a really intensive program,” Beirl says, “Five weeks, five days a week. In the fourth week, IBM’s Paul Newton—co-author of ‘z/OS*: An Introduction,’—taught remotely via Webex in the morning, and then we would practice exercises in the afternoon.”

The program also benefitted from volunteer teaching assistants like Don Geiss, who has extensive experience working in IBM mainframe environments.

“It was a really intensive program. Five weeks, five days a week."
–Lynn Beirl, training specialist, Thrive Impact Sourcing

One of the challenges, Beirl explains, was that all six students had different levels of experience when they began the course. To try and ensure everyone was learning at an appropriate pace, she divided the class into three sets of pairs, mixing those with more pre-existing knowledge with those less familiar with certain concepts.

Based on feedback from Brown and his peers, the evidence shows that the pilot was a success. A full evaluation involving stakeholder feedback is still underway, but as Brown says, all of the participants have been offered jobs in the mainframe world as a direct result of the initiative.

The hope is, however, that the course will be repeated with a larger cohort soon. And there may be other minor changes as well. “Five weeks was a little short,” says Per Scholas’ Cashen. “I would move to six weeks if we did it again, but that’s what pilots are for.”

Soft Skills Emphasis

Per Scholas’ success rate for students who go on to work in IT is notably high, and it’s not just due to the quality of technical training. The organization emphasizes soft skills, such as understanding the workplace environment, team building and how to draw up a resume. One day a week of the mainframe boot camp was dedicated to this kind of career development, but the ethos permeates even deeper than that.

“I learned a lot of information that I would never have known,” says Brown. “We don’t receive a lot of career training in U.S. schools, and learning how to prepare a resume, conduct myself in an interview, what an interviewer is thinking and expecting—that was gold. They did a great job of introducing us to potential employers, too. We had a series of mock interviews with Russell Tobin, but they’re a real IT recruiting firm. They were also vetting us for real positions and I got an interview with an insurance firm as a result.”

The pilot program sets the bar high for collaborative efforts to create new mainframe talent. “The 18 months of collaboration across our IBM Z clients in the Cincinnati area, Per Scholas and Russell Tobin produced excellent results while providing outstanding new mainframe job opportunities for the graduated students,” says Schroeder. “This was a win for everyone involved.”

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