IBM Launches New COBOL Training Initiative, as Elderly Programmers Answer the Call for Help

Credit: NASA

There’s an urgent need for COBOL programmers to update the unemployment systems across the United States. It’s predicted that at least 17 million people have lost their jobs already. According to some surveys, up to 52 percent of workers under the age of 45 have already been impacted in some way, either by being furloughed, fired, or having their hours cut. Multiple states across the nation have urgently called for COBOL programmers to assist them. Now, IBM is getting into the action and spinning up to help connect programmers and people.

Why Do We Need COBOL Programmers?

COBOL is an old language and dates to 1969. While it lacks the popularity of more recent languages like Java, Python, or even C++, it’s still used in a wide variety of mission-critical banking and government applications. I remember being told 20 years ago not to bother studying COBOL because it would surely be gone before too much longer — and 20 years later, the government is desperate to find people who can write it.

Part of the problem with the Great Cessation (that’s my own nickname for the current coronavirus clusterfsck we’re all enjoying) is that it’s driven unemployment through the stratosphere in an extraordinarily quick period of time. A typical recession or depression, including the Great Depression, takes time to unfold. We think of the GD as unfolding all at once, I think, because we tie the entire affair to the stock market crash on October 29, 1929. In actuality, the Great Depression unfolded gradually. As bad as the crash was, it took three years for worldwide GDP to fall by 15 percent. The graph below, from Wikipedia, shows the US unemployment rate during the relevant period, with the 1929 – 1939 range highlighted in blue:

Image by Wikipedia

To put this in perspective, JP Morgan now projects a 40 percent decline in GDP in Q2, with a 20 percent unemployment rate. Data from the Fed, released at the beginning of April, suggests the unemployment rate could be 30 percent or more. Unfortunately, because each state handles its own UI solution, there isn’t one cohesive federal system for handling UI claims. There are dozens of state systems. I’ve actually been following this issue for the past week, trying to find more detailed information on which states are running the oldest hardware, but data at this granularity is difficult to find.

As near as I can tell, the current UI systems in-use run the gamut from ancient mainframes possibly running code written 40-50 years ago and minimally updated in the years since to fairly recent overhauls implemented by state legislatures. There is no data available on which states are seeing the highest rates of failure. Online discussions of the topic have pointed out that the systems running on ancient COBOL mainframes are going to be limited in terms of how many claims they can process per day, period, but COBOL programmers are still required to change payment rates and timeframes. Florida’s system is so overwhelmed, they’ve gone back to paper processing. Some states are seeing claim numbers higher in a single week than they typically process in a year. Existing UI systems, in many cases, aren’t up to the challenge.

All of this means a crushing need for COBOL programmers. The corps of still-living COBOL programmers in the US is, however, rather small in comparison to a modern language, and many of them are long retired. According to IEEE, groups are already springing up to put states in touch with COBOL coders, including those who have already left the field but might be willing to return in this time of crisis.

IBM Steps Up

IBM has created three new initiatives to train new COBOL programmers or help old ones get back in the swing of things. There’s a new “Calling all COBOL Programmers” forum, intended to help new coders connect with veterans with significant experience. There’s a new “COBOL Technical Forum,” where active and experienced COBOL engineers are available to provide free advice and expertise. Finally, the company is building a brand-new open-source COBOL training resource. This curriculum was created in partnership with an unnamed institute of higher education and will be available next week at no charge to anyone.

(Hopefully, that educational partnership wasn’t with Miskatonic University, or everything is really going straight to hell).

Jokes about the Great Old Ones ending the entire world notwithstanding, there’s a great deal of work being done to help current programmers get up to speed on COBOL and to try and bring old coders back to the fold in an advisory capacity, if nothing else. It isn’t clear if these efforts will happen quickly enough to help the states that most need it. But the training and greater level of COBOL expertise in the larger community over time should pay its own dividends, given how much the language is still used.

Feature image is of an IBM System/360, courtesy of NASA.

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