Securing mainframe’s future in finance amid the widening IT skills gap

Ken Harper – Director, Mainframe Services at Ensono

The banking industry may have its head in the cloud, but mainframe remains the solid, reliable backbone of financial computing.

It’s true: the cloud is flashier and newer,but it’s no coincidence that 92 of the world’s 100 largest banks continue to rely on the humble mainframe. Financial institutions readily understand its ability to handle high volumes of transactions reliably, securely, and efficiently. Unlike the cloud, it can handle more workloads cost effectively, often without additional infrastructure or staffing.

Predictions were made that suggested mainframe would be redundant by 1996, yet 2018 sees it accounting for 70% of Fortune 500’s core systems. A gift that keeps on giving, the mainframe has continued to power the banking world through its revolutionary shift to 24-hour online banking and the increased need for impenetrable security of personal financial information.

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But in spite of the benefits that mainframe computing can provide, there’s a wider societal problem brewing that could spell disaster for the sector: the baby boomer generation created, maintained and developed the mainframe, and in recent years, retirement has been taking its toll. What was once a cutting-edge career has become a neglected occupation in need of a revival. As the pool of talent diminishes year on year, demand for those skills is rises. With the banking and finance industry making up a staggering 23% of the total number of organisations that rely on mainframe, this is the sector that risks taking the brunt of the impact.

Despite figures showing that almost half of banking executives believe that dual-platform hybrid cloud- and the systems that underpin it – can accelerate innovation, perceptions that the mainframe is dying remain rife. It isn’t difficult to understand why people are reluctant to study for and enter into this specialist field. Millennials have been caught up in the race to help push forward the latest innovations and technologies, and in that process, mainframe has been left in the dust. Many university courses have dropped mainframe and its related coding languages from the curriculum in favour of blockchain and cloud-focused courses,deemed to be ‘longer-life’ skills.

 Solutions are limited. Banks can theoretically take the risky, time-consuming and expensive option to transition from mainframe to cloud, but then they lose out on the many advantages that the mainframe brings. There is no quick-fix solution to this crisis, and realistically, the solution involves a multi-pronged approach.

Firstly, the financial mainframe needs a makeover; it’s about perception. Rather than being synonymous with the older generation, young workers need to see the relevance of a career in mainframe, and the premium that their skills can command in the market. Banks should make the recruitment process engaging, lending universities and colleges new mainframe equipment and opening dialogues with students to perpetuate the image of the mainframe as a platform for innovation. Competitions could be run, with coveted financial apprenticeships offered to those who engage with the mainframe in creative ways.

It’s also about training: banks should certainly consider developing a mainframe on-boarding programme to train interns and seasoned hires, steering the trainees through the programme in a way that allows junior-level interns to quickly gain vocational mainframe experience, while seasoned hires can skip topics they already know. The interns should complete their training with technical assignments, tailored to their growing skills and knowledge base. Allocating new starters an experienced ‘Mainframe Mentor’ will support all of this by promoting a culture of openness, in which questions are encouraged and anecdotal stories can be shared to expedite learning.

Lastly, it’s also about ensuring mainframe IT salaries are competitive. To close the talent gap for skills that are becoming increasingly scarce, mainframe jobs must offer commensurate compensation. The job skills are just as necessary as other IT jobs, but are also harder to come by – and graduates will be more attracted to the challenges of learning the mainframe if they are compensated well. The average salary for a recent graduate working in mainframe systems programming isn’t easily found online.

The mainframe is here to stay, especially for established financial institutions, and the most astute IT leaders will be planning for a future that continues to accommodate mainframe computing. Securing mainframe’s future will need well-planned actions to attract and retain the next generation of moderators, and no one solution will work for every financial organisation. With the right strategy in place, however, companies can continue to extract value from the mainframe for years to come.