Apr 23, 2020 - Valerie Silverthorne    

How can we help solve the COBOL programmer shortage?

A shortage of COBOL programmers is causing delays in processing unemployment claims and small business loans. We’re hoping our community can help.

In our current world situation is it any surprise that a shortage of COBOL developers is holding up unemployment benefits and Small Business Association loan processing?

Actually, it is kind of surprising. We’ve grown used to the rapid advance of technology and it’s safe to say we’re like most companies – looking forward and not backward.

But it might be time to change that, and we’re reaching out to all of you for ideas and suggestions. What can we, as a community, do to help government agencies overwhelmed with demands on aging mainframes and with too few programmers to get the jobs done?

CNN and a number of other news agencies reported that a lack of COBOL programming expertise has led to long waits in processing unemployment benefits and small business loans at a time when joblessness has hit record highs.

But COBOL isn’t limited to government entities: Large financial services and a myriad of other industries are still heavily reliant on mainframes and their primary programming language. That’s not likely to change anytime soon – IBM says there are 240 billion lines of COBOL running today with an additional 5 billion being written every year.

While that may sound like job security, COBOL programming isn’t widely taught today and it certainly lacks the developer interest level of Ruby or TypeScript or Go. A quick search on job site Glassdoor shows about 1700 jobs advertised for COBOL programmers across the US today, while there are well over 4000 potential employers for Go or Ruby developers, and over 30,000 for Java developers.

Today a number of companies are working to integrate more "modern" software development methodologies with mainframes (even GitLab), but that’s not going to solve the short-term need (or probably even the medium-term need).

There are some educational opportunities available from Udemy, LinkedIn, Learning Tree and a free COBOL programming course from the openmainframeproject on GitHub.

Can we do more? We don’t have the answers but we’ve opened a public issue so please leave any ideas there.

Updated on June 1, 2020: We've had some responses on our public issue including this from contributor Timothy Austin: "The companies who hold all these large COBOL code bases need to pressure the universities to require all up and coming Java programmers to have a rudimentary knowledge of COBOL. This would allow them the flexibility to convert the COBOL or continue use it as is if they so desire." Learn more in our issue.

Cover image by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

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