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Brian Koma, AFCOM, for Optimize
Brian Koma, AFCOM, for Optimize
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The Incredible Shrinking Legacy Workforces

Enterprise IT organizations are threatened by the collision of three ominous trends: the continued reliance on mainframe systems, an aging Baby Boomer population, and the limited skills base of younger IT workers.

Just as three weather systems collided to devastating effect in Sebastian Junger's book, "The Perfect Storm," enterprise IT organizations are threatened by the collision of three ominous trends: the continued reliance on mainframe systems, an aging Baby Boomer population, and the limited skills base of younger IT workers. If these factors aren't addressed within the next five to seven years, we'll all be facing an IT skills shortage that could prove devastating to businesses that depend on technology expertise.

Yes, that's correct: an IT skills shortage. That may sound surprising in the midst of the most long-lived and difficult technology recession since the industry's inception, but it's true. You may be asking: Aren't there enough people on the street with significant IT skills? Aren't companies announcing downsizing and outsourcing moves on a regular basis? To answer these questions it's important to separate short-term economic challenges from longer-term issues that will continue to affect corporate America's top brass moving forward, and to also look at the changes that have affected the IT workforce in recent years. Then, CIOs have to rethink their staff skills mix and training to prepare for the needs ahead.

Within the next five to seven years, the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation will become eligible for retirement, and many of our most experienced IT workers will be migrating to the beach instead of migrating servers. A recent Meta Group study shows more than half of those who run enterprise IT organizations are already over the age of 50.

What's important about this demographic trend is the type of enterprise IT knowledge that will retire along with these experienced workers. Many are trained in mainframe skills that, with rare exception, aren't taught today. What's more, these workers also possess highly developed process knowledge and intellectual capital in creating and running highly stable enterprise IT environments.

In response, smart companies like Cooper Hand Tools in Apex, N.C., already are implementing programs to propagate enterprise IT skills throughout the organization. "We are using a combination of on-the-job training, cross-training, WebEx training sessions, video, and external training courses to ensure that our staff is fully cross-trained in a variety of disciplines," says Ray Heath, manager of computer operations. "We're working to ensure that our operations staff is capable of handling service-desk responsibilities, which is a new capability for this group."

Cooper Hand Tools is using "relay training" so its IT staff can fulfill its existing obligations while making time for training in new areas. All IT staffers, including management, are required to undergo ongoing professional development to become familiar with the entire IT environment. "We're working to put a more formal process in place and will soon explore distance learning as an additional component of skills training," says Heath.

In the boom years of the late 1990s, such "retro" training was anathema. Change management, disaster recovery, storage management, and other staple IT processes were dirty words to most corporate executives who were clamoring instead for the Next Big Web Thing. But while it may be true that legacy processes can slow new-system deployment, they also create a level of stability and dependability that make IT infrastructures highly reliable. This process expertise will be very much at risk in the next few years as retirements loom for workers who helped develop and perfect such processes.

Ten years ago, industry pundits declared the mainframe dead. Client/server and then Web-based systems were proclaimed the next-generation technologies that were better, faster, and cheaper. Unfortunately, the hype didn't match the reality. Despite the growth of client/server and Web technologies, mainframes continue to play a critical role in the IT environment -- IBM and others keep introducing bigger and faster high-end multiprocessors. According to Gartner, the first new implementations of mainframes in non-mainframe companies since the mid-1980s began in 2001, and in 2002, more than 100 new mainframe implementations were undertaken worldwide.

These systems continue to play a vital role in many large businesses because of their scalability and reliability. In fact, the proliferation of Web-service architectures has helped mainframes evolve from isolated silos within the data center to systems that are tightly integrated with the entire IT environment. The result: Banks, airlines, and manufacturers will continue to rely on mainframes for such critical functions as accounting, ERP, finance, insurance, and order entry far into the future.

In addition, the growth of Linux on the mainframe has surprised many. According to Gartner, it accounted for at least 15 percent of the new MIPS shipped in 2001, and more than 20 percent of MIPS shipped in 2002. An estimated 200 mainframe customers now have at least one Linux application in production on their mainframes, and a survey of members of AFCOM, an association representing more than 3,000 of the nation's largest enterprise data centers, shows a strong trend toward adopting Linux on the mainframe.

The Skills Gap:

Despite this continued reliance on mainframe technology and data, a look at the computer-science curricula at many leading colleges and universities shows that these skills aren't widely taught. And even if students could get this skills training, how many members of Generation Y can we reasonably expect to voluntarily learn Cobol or RPG? They'd much rather work on hot new Web apps and emerging technologies.

As a result, IT professionals entering the workforce today are skilled in Java, Linux, and XML -- not Cobol, OS/390, and CICS. The most commonly sought IT skills certifications in the United States from 2001 to 2002 were HTML, C++, and network technical support, according to the 2002 Global ITIQ report by Brainbench, a provider of online IT-skills assessments. These newer technologies bring powerful and important capabilities. It's become clear that they must be co-managed to optimize the enterprise investment in systems.

Unfortunately, the idea of preserving skills to manage a multi-generational enterprise architecture isn't a priority. In fact, most companies do a poor job of managing and planning their skills base, especially their aging skills base. It's a bit of a hidden -- and perhaps even arcane -- problem. After all, most top IT executives don't keep their finger on the pulse of college-campus curricula. Perhaps they should, because a significant part of their day-to-day business relies on skills that are no longer taught.

There are remedies, beginning with discussions of the problem among high-ranking business and IT executives. In addition, businesses need to integrate legacy training into their next-generation enterprise strategies, and develop and expand integrated training programs in all critical enterprise IT skills, not just mainframe technologies. A separate but related problem is that older workers who aren't ready to retire need to constantly refresh their skills and enhance their knowledge, too.

Propagating critical enterprise-technology processes throughout the IT organization is also critical. Getting younger workers involved in change management, business-continuity planning, performance management, storage management, and other core IT disciplines provides a great opportunity for them to learn legacy skills. Formal on-the-job training and mentoring programs are good ways to get started. Companies should seek out external training and certification programs that teach legacy IT skills.

Finding these programs won't be easy, however. In a nationwide search for legacy-system training resources, AFCOM found few organizations addressing this issue. That's why AFCOM's Data Center Institute in the last two years has sought the input of leading data-center managers and technology vendors on how to best deal with these issues. The result was the creation of the Data Center Knowledge Initiative, which provides a framework of three critical strategies that IT organizations should begin to implement.

Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., has instituted an undergraduate degree and certificate program in legacy IT skills. The program was created expressly to address the looming skills shortage and dearth of formal training resources for these technologies.

Its offerings include an undergraduate degree for data-center professionals, a degree in data-center technology, a certificate program in data-center technology, and credit-bearing courses toward certification as a Certified Data Center Professional. Enterprise IT skills also can be addressed through formal certifications in areas such as data-center systems and software, networking, facilities management, operations and process management, product development, financial planning, and security. These courses and certificate programs are offered both at Marist's facility and on the Internet. Because Marist is an accredited educational institution, IT departments can give their deflated training budgets a break and tap tuition-reimbursement budgets instead.

Marist recently asked AFCOM's members for feedback on its Data Center Technology offerings via an online survey. Of 169 respondents, 83 percent said they're interested in the courses, and 26 percent said they're interested in a certificate in multiple data-center technologies or a specific data-center technology. Clearly, the certificate/certification component has appeal because it has a direct bearing on IT professionals' jobs, though there appears to be demand for undergraduate-and graduate-level courses, as well. Almost one-third expressed an interest in both data-center technology courses.

Enterprise IT organizations can also turn to what they know best -- technology solutions -- to solve the skills dilemma. These are trending toward three main areas:

* Embedding platform-specific knowledge into software tools to reduce the reliance on IT staff's native skills.

* Updating legacy-systems management platforms from platform-specific solutions to multi-platform process-specific solutions.

* Renovating legacy applications so workers with newer skills can maintain them.

IT vendors such as BMC Software and ASG Software Solutions are updating systems and creating new solutions that embed platform knowledge into the tool, requiring less knowledge on the IT worker's part. Vendors say this is critical to maintaining their legacy revenue streams.

But it doesn't end there. Since younger IT workers have never seen green-screen and command-line interfaces on their systems-management tools, many vendors are putting new interfaces on old systems. Some have developed systems that let companies manage mainframes through handheld wireless devices, and companies are replacing the need for platform knowledge with process knowledge. For example, companies are increasingly looking to leverage domain expertise in such disciplines as storage, security, and performance, rather than platform expertise in MVS, OS/390, Unix, and Windows. The newer tools are leveraging IT staffs across multiple platforms -- a necessity prompted by tight IT budgets that aren't likely to grow anytime soon.

Vendors are providing legacy-modernization tools that help renovate and update applications. Legacy code can now be encapsulated by newer code so workers with non-mainframe/legacy code skills are able to maintain it. In addition, with these newer application-development technologies, companies can renovate legacy code to keep pace with existing languages.

While training and technology provide a good start, companies must also use innovative management practices to entice workers to learn these legacy skills. At Illinois Power, Kent Howell, manager of computer operations, says efforts are already under way to implement incentive programs to encourage workers to add legacy skills to their portfolio. Workers who learn these skills are given special non-monetary incentives, including enhanced career tracks so their careers aren't derailed by learning legacy skills. In addition, employees in non-technical areas who've reached their salary maximums and have little or no room for advancement are being recruited to learn legacy IT skills. The company also is exploring the adoption of Linux to help reduce costs and has implemented a number of management practices to support enterprise IT skills. For example, it created a separate technical career track that allows individuals advancement even if they choose to stay off the management track. The technical career track focuses on keeping employees' technical skills and enterprise data-center skills up to date across all levels.

Addressing the problem is a process that requires objective assessment of the IT infrastructure, application portfolio, and skills base to evaluate the degree of reliance on legacy systems and the demographics of IT employees. Remember that mainframe skills aren't the only issue here; It's important to evaluate core IT process skills as well.

Finally, companies should understand the culture within the IT group, and develop and adopt management practices to help encourage the propagation of legacy IT skills. Taking steps now can help smart companies steer clear of that Perfect IT Storm.

Brian Koma is a founding member of the Data Center Institute and also serves as AFCOM's marketing VP.

Reprinted from Optimize magazine, August 2003, Issue 22.

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