The Mainframe is Here To Stay, yet the Z Workforce is Shrinking at a Worrying Pace

Computing “experts” were predicting the demise of the mainframe as early as the late 80s. Decades later, the joke is on them. Big Iron continues to process billions of daily transactions, powering 70% of the Global 500 with a mean time between failures (MTBF) measured not in months but in years. While hindsight shows rumors of the mainframe’s death were greatly exaggerated, that wasn’t apparent to all the computer science students who opted to forgo Fortran and circumvent Cobol all those years ago. Today, the problem is not how to retire mainframes—it’s how enterprises will cope with the mass exodus of retiring mainframers.

The same baby boomers who helped make the mainframe the world’s most efficient and reliable computing platform are retiring in droves, leaving the workforce at a rate of 10,000 individuals per day. According to a study from Forrester Research, 23% of all enterprise mainframe developers retired between 2013 and 2018, and 63% of these job openings have yet to be filled. BMC’s 2019 Mainframe Survey found 3% of respondents were over the age of 65, with another 37% between 50 and 64. Over the next decade, these mainframers will continue to relinquish their duties to retirement. What’s less clear is who will pick up the torch.

Rewriting the Rulebook for the Remote Mainframe Workforce

In order to keep mainframes up and running with proper maintenance and development resources in place, enterprises will need to effectively compete for a very limited supply of mainframe talent. One of the best ways to do that is to put the trust back into the remote worker, taking into account not just the possibility but the proliferation of remote work.

A study from IWG suggests that 70% of the global workforce telecommutes at least once each week, while 53% are remote for at least half of their working hours. Research from Flexjobs and Global Workplace Analytics reports a 159% increase in telecommuting between 2005 and 2017. In IT, where personnel are already more accustomed to remote positions, it’s becoming less of a perk than a requirement.

Adopt Remote Work and Boost Retention

When Insoft Infotel conducted a survey recently on remote work practices, one mainframer responded by saying, “I’ve worked remotely for over five years now and have never set foot in the office. Given that my productivity is higher, my work/life balance better and my overall physical and mental health is improved, I won’t go back into an office setting. I’ll retire first or find another career.” There’s a host of research suggesting that this perception isn’t just anecdotal—it’s a widely shared opinion. In fact, a survey from Virtual Vocations indicates that 98.6% of Millennials and Baby Boomers believe that remote work should be a standard option in the type of roles that are conducive to the practice.

The pros of remote work clearly outweigh the cons, yet the decisions to be made will vary by organization and within each organization, by manager to manager. Whether you’re looking to retain your mainframers as they approach retirement age or you’re trying to attract the next generation of talent to run your Big Iron, you will undoubtedly need to up your ante for remote work and impart on your management team to embrace the trend. Ultimately, you’ll enjoy a larger and more passionate talent pool and Big Iron will roll on another 50 years.

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