Academia needs more support to tackle the COBOL programming skills gap

A new piece of research on IT skills within academic institutions released by MicroFocus found that 73% of academics running IT courses do not have COBOL programming as part of their curriculum. That is despite 71% believing that today’s business organizations will continue to rely on applications built using the COBOL language for the next 10+ years. To help discuss this we are joined by Michael Coughlan, lecturer at University of Limerick and Ed Airey, Product Director at Micro Focus on the line to talk us through the research.

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What brought about this study initially?

Ed Airey

We are very excited about this research, it is part of a conversation we have had for quite some time with our customers who continue to search for talent for critical business applications that were written using the Cobol language. It’s a challenge that we are seeing more and more as the skill set within organisations are retiring and moving on.

Michael tells us about your work at Limerick University?

Michael Coughlan

I have been a lecturer at the university since the 1980s and have been teaching COBOL since then. I have a popular website of COBOL tutorials and instructions.

Explain then how COBOL has a relevance compared to other languages? What is it used for? It has been around a long time hasn’t it?

Michael Coughlan

Yes it has been around a long long time and people keep predicting its demise but it has managed to soldier on. Probably the reason is that it is very good fit for the business domain for information systems, posting of files and that kind of thing. Other languages for example if you were to take Java for instance, they don’t have the built in native types that COBOL has for dealing with currencies. They have to import them as classes so in a Java programme for example you might have a mixture of operations for multiplying and dividing integers and then to multiply and divide currency and you would have to have a completely different set of operations. In Cobol that is all one thing because in Cobol the facility is present to allow you to do multiplication on decimal data as a native data type to the language. That is what makes it so fit for operations and for business in general. There is a huge inventory, approximately 89% according to Gartner of all the programmes in the world are written in COBOL If you go to the ATM it is probably COBOL behind that. If you get your payroll slip it probably has COBOL behind it too. It is incredibly important for all the mission critical operations that we do in the world and our current problem at the moment is that we have all this code out there but the pool of COBOL programmers is shrinking and we are not replacing them.

MicroFocus has recognised this problem and launched the research that we are talking about today so talk us through how the data was collected. How many universities were involved?

Ed Airey

The research that we conducted was across about 120 universities and I think what was very interesting to us was through the poling we saw some very common trends. Much of what we believed to be true was actually true in that there was an inability to meet the demand that businesses have in terms of being able to find the COBOL talent in the industry. There were just not enough students coming out of university with that skill set and organisations were faced with either internship programmes or perhaps moving to a different technology. Of the universities and academic leaders that we polled, only 1 in 4 today are teaching COBOL so certainly there is some work to do there. In that same data sample over 70% of those people stated that they still believed the COBOL language will persevere and will continue for at least the next ten years and perhaps longer. That leads us to believe that obviously the language is not going anywhere and we are still somewhat dependent upon that technology but there is a question of how we are going to support it moving forward. Very few students were graduating with a skill set in COBOL and I think in total it was about 5% overall of the data sample.

Michael from your point of view working with students on a daily basis what’s the attitude of students towards COBOL languages and could part of the problem be linked to the way that in the world of technology we are always looking towards the next big thing?

Michael Coughlan

Unfortunately you are right there it is the attitude that students are attracted to the new and the shiny and even now if you go onto the internet and you do a search on Java you will see lots of material there talking about Java as the new COBOL. In other words students are now being attracted to the much newer languages like Python and Ruby. Students are attracted to the new and the shiny so it is difficult to get them to engage and to realise the importance of the language and I mean it also does much more mundane stuff, you are not writing, you are not operating systems and you are not writing system programmes you are writing business programmes and they tend to be (from the students perception) seen as being a bit stodgy.

Does the answer to promoting and inspiring students to take up the COBOL language lie with academic institutions, the industry or governments? Who needs to be working on changing the perceptions here?

Michael Coughlan

I think it is a combination of all those exactly as you have suggested there. MicroFocus for example and the other COBOL vendors are doing some good work in that regard because it used to be very difficult for students to gain entry into COBOL because of the expense of the compiler. Now though, MicroFocus are making that compiler free and Fujitsu have a similar sort of arrangement so at least you can download one and try it out before you buy it. Those sorts of things are allowing students to actually try out the language and reduce the cost of learning the language. That is a tremendous improvement and that movement has happened very recently. So that is one way of doing it, the other way of doing it is for the companies to start advertising for entry level COBOL programmers because there is a definite perception among the students that there are no jobs in COBOL and if they do a search for jobs in COBOL what they find is that the only jobs are for people who have 10 or 15 years experience. Obviously they are not going to go for those jobs and they see them as being not available to them. Companies need to make it clear that they need those people and need to start advertising for entry level programmers if they want to replace their ever shrinking pool of programmers.

So are MicroFocus now looking to promote this language to students? How are you going to achieve that?

Ed Airey

Absolutely. That is a part of what we hope to do within our academic programme here at MicroFocus not only through being able to provide access to software as discussed earlier, but also by connecting them with the market and the opportunity. That goes both ways, it is also for the business organisations to help them by promoting the jobs that they have whether they be entry, end or senior positions. So, that is what we are looking at here as part of a talent hub initiative at MicroFocus for people to connect those two together so they can share in the joint opportunity.

There was a recent campaign by code.org with a viral video campaign that we have covered here on ITProPortal recently promoting programming generally as a skill to young people. Is this do you think indicative of a skill shortage in programming generally not just within the COBOL language?

Ed Airey

I would say it does span across generally and applies not just to the COBOL language. You see it within other languages as well but I think it is probably more pronounced in COBOL than in any other language for the reasons that we have discussed. COBOL is found within so many businesses that if they stopped working the situation would become very very critical. So, I think it is more pronounced within the COBOL language but you also see it within many older languages as well.

Well as a result of the MicroFocus study what would you like to see happen now to bridge the skills gap and inspire students to take up this programming language?

Michael Coughlan

I think I would definitely like to focus on persuading other COBOL vendors to address the situation and to encourage people to become COBOL programmers. I would also like to see industry advertising to raise the profile of COBOL in general. That is what needs to be done but there is still going to be the perception that other languages are more modern and to an extent what else can you expect COBOL has its origins in the 60s. New languages are going to come along and people are going to expect that they more modern, more advanced and more interesting and are going to be drawn to them because of those things.

Should governments be getting involved here? What could they be doing?

Michael Coughlan

Governments can get involved and in fact I came into computing (as my original degree was in history) because of a government initiative in the 1970s when there was a shortfall in programmers. The government then actually paid us to take conversion courses to convert ourselves into programmers and academics of one sort or another. We are seeing a similar sort of thing in Ireland now where fees are being waived for some of the courses in the higher diploma and the one-year conversion type courses. These things come and go in waves, in the year 2000 our numbers on the course were very large and we were having difficulty coping with the numbers of students that we were getting in and then the Y2K problem happened and the departments spent all their budgets. As a result, employment fell off quite dramatically and that information percolated through the schools and people stopped applying for the courses leading to the current shortfall now. Computer science departments all over the world were not turning out programmers or computer scientists and that is what has led to the current crisis. Once that is addressed we will probably have a glut again and then a shortfall and so on.

Well a final thought from you both, what was the most surprising thing about the findings from the MicroFocus study?

Ed Airey

I think what surprised me the most about this study is that we still have more work and more roads ahead of us in making an impact. I think that in many ways we are still falling behind in addressing this challenge. I think time to a degree, is running out and I think if we don’t have a positive change in skills development then I think what will inevitably happen is that we will be forced to take a drastic decision about the technology. Sometimes, drastic decisions don’t typically end well if they are made in haste and made under that type of pressure. I think that there is certainly urgency upon us to make sure that we do what we can to try to and change the trajectory of where this research leads us to believe we are headed.

Michael Coughlan

To be honest I was surprised that there was a many academics as there were who were expressing the need for COBOL because traditionally people have been a bit COBOL resistant one way or another so I was quite gratified that there were that many people who were aware of the need for COBOL.