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The IT Skills Gap

June 5, 2017

Last week we went to see our friend Jim Buck speak at TUG,  our local user group. Our major interest in attending was to hear Jim speak on the subject "Failure to Modernize–The Real Cost" a topic that regular readers will recognize as near and dear to our hearts. We weren't disappointed, and we would like to share some of Jim's insights with you.

Jim's approach to the topic is from the perspective of an educator who has been actively involved in training future IBM i professionals for many years. Some of you may recall that we have previously mentioned Jim's highly successful IBM i program at the Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin. Sadly, Jim has retired from the college now and so that program is now somewhat up in the air. More on that in a moment.

Jim began his talk by highlighting some figures from a piece he wrote years ago, which identified a worrying decline in enrolment in IT courses. It seems the trend he saw back then hasn't shown signs of improvement in recent years. A 2008 report of the Wisconsin Technical College System noted that between 2002 and 2007, enrolment in IT courses declined by nearly 43 percent, with graduations declining by 26.5 percent over the same time period. This is not an issue specifically related to the IBM i marketplace but to IT courses across the board. IT, and specifically Enterprise Systems IT, is just not "sexy" anymore.

The result of all this is a growing skills gap. Employers are constantly complaining about a shortage of qualified workers, and some 49 percent cite a lack of specific job skills, such as IBM i and RPG, as a major problem. We found it interesting though that only 29 percent think that a lack of on-the-job training contributes to the problem. Apparently the others like to complain but aren't interested in being part of the solution!
As IBM i professionals, what might surprise you (at least it surprised us) is what potential future IT professionals think of IBM in general and our favorite system in particular.

The situation for IBM in general is something the company should be seriously concerned about. Among potential IT students, most either don't know who IBM is or think that they have gone out of business e.g. "Weren't they taken over by Lenovo?". Jim noted that he recently asked a group of first semester IT students “What is IBM’s business?”. Three had never heard of IBM. Five others admitted they didn’t have a clue. The majority said “Something to do with computers?”.
As to what they think of IBM i, the answer is simple—they don't. And why should they? Imagine you were a student reviewing IT opportunities in your area. You'll see job postings looking for AS/400, iSeries and System i skills. Now suppose that you haven't heard of any of those so you Google them. You will quickly find that they refer to old, obsolete systems which, in the case of AS/400, have not been made or marketed for as long as 17-plus years. In other words, a system that was last sold when these potential employees were 2 or 3 years old. That would certainly have sounded like exciting work to us back when we were that age - not! We don't want to start the naming shaming game again, but if you think about it this is a situation where the name really does matter.

The results of all this?

IBM i professional resources are rapidly dwindling with huge numbers of boomers retiring daily—and there are not enough newbies (in North America anyway) getting ready to take their places.

The result is ever increasing costs to maintain and enhance the systems that our businesses rely on. This in turn leads to missed business opportunities because our systems cannot adapt to the rate of change. Sadly, too many businesses believe (incorrectly) that the answer is to rewrite or migrate their systems to other platforms. Still others switch to using the effectively unlimited supply of foreign workers. Neither is a good solution.

Jim's view is that we need to work more with high schools & colleges and for the community to make sure that when programs are offered that the students have internships & jobs available to them. We blogged about that idea a while back.

We also need to understand that young people will simply not work with old technologies. SEU? We're talking about people who live on their phones—do you seriously think they will be happy with a tool like SEU? That was out of date in in the 1990s! And our RPG code needs to be modernized as well to attract young developers to our great business language. We maintain, as we stated last year, that one of the primary reasons to convert all your code to free-format RPG is to attract new developers to the language. We need to modernize both our code base and tools to attract young IT professionals.

Here's a thought for those of you who find yourself in need of RPG skills. Jim talked of one of his RPG students who already had a four-year degree in English but could not find a good paying job. A friend of his recommended Jim's RPG course—he enrolled and found that he enjoyed programming and was good at it. Today he is working successfully in a large IBM i shop putting his newfound RPG skills to work—along with his English language skills in communications and documentation! Perhaps what you should be looking for is not an experienced RPG programmer but a Liberal Arts graduate willing to look beyond their current skill set and pay off their student loans!

Posted June 5, 2017| Permalink