Seventy-five percent of the college participants in IBMs "Master the Mainframe" competition, which ended Dec. 31, 2005, had never logged onto a mainframe before the challenge, an ominous sign of the drain in relevant technicians to come.
"The contest we put together was primarily to address the skills shortage and get this information out. We wanted to drive student interest in the mainframe, and give them a chance to log in and try it for themselves," said Mike Todd, IBM Academic Initiative Advisor.
Companies that both manufacture and rely upon mainframes for their business have a looming concern that future generations of industry professionals may lack relevant mainframe skills.
"It seems like the whole world thought we were moving to a distributed computer model and now people are realizing that theyre not handling our computer needs, and coming back to mainframes. But, the education hasnt been there," said Todd.
"We set it up so students with no experience on the mainframe could try them, and do simple tasks. They really enjoyed it. It was something new and different to them," said Todd.
Yet, not many college students express interest in studying mainframes, despite their use by many government institutions and large companies for bulk data processing and financial transactions.
"Its not a really sexy industry," said George Hamilton, senior analyst with the Yankee Group.
"Students learn the basics of mainframes in school, but when it comes time to pick a specialty, they move to .Net framework or Java, something new and more exciting. But, travel, financial institutions and many other big areas use mainframes, and the jobs are there."
"I think a lot of companies are going to have to take college graduates and train them themselves."
IBM is going precisely this route, announcing over the last several years a slew of academic programs aimed at promoting student interest in mainframe technology.
In July 2005, IBM pledged to work with schools to reach a target of 20,000 mainframe literate IT professionals in the market by 2010.
"Whats very strange about the IT industry is that philosophically it is one that celebrates the new on a constant basis. Its like a consumer that becomes enamored by whatever gizmo hits the market every quarter and focuses on that tchotchke and forgets that the technology that allows them to have a central heating system," said Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT.
"IBM understands that its tough to keep peoples interest in platforms that have historical weight and gravity, and theyve fought this… From a career standpoint, there are worse places to work than a data center. Theyre well-funded, and these companies place a lot of value on their IT infrastructure."
IBM recently announced a software initiative aimed at boosting the image and capabilities of its System Z mainframe systems, one of many recent programs developed to promote the growth of mainframe technology.