Scant New Talent Is Finding IBM i
September 4, 2012 Dan Burger
IBM i shops are worried. Some would say things are well past the worried stage and the lack of college grads with skills that match IBM midrange requirements has become a huge concern. Coincidentally, there are a lot of college graduates with huge concerns about finding jobs. It shouldn’t be that hard to raise the success rate for both sides. Where is the breakdown occurring?
Let’s start with a positive. At Delta Dental of Wisconsin, the state’s largest dental benefits provider and a company running its core business on IBM i, the IT and HR departments work together on a recruitment strategy that has close ties to colleges where IBM i skills are part of the computer science curriculum. They are on advisory boards that help determine the classroom subjects.
Delta Dental has cooperative relationships with Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wisconsin; Mid-State Technical College in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin; and Muskegon Community College in Muskegon, Michigan.
“The technical colleges do an excellent job at connecting with businesses and finding out what the job needs are,” says Sue Shulfer, director of human resources at Delta Dental of Wisconsin. “They will develop curriculum to meet needs where possible.”
Working with three colleges provides Delta Dental with a wider scope of skills as individual curricula at each school provides some differentiation. Mid-State, for instance, has a combination of RPG and PHP programs that fits in well with the application planning at Delta Dental.
Brian Pinter, the IT manager of applications at Delta Dental, says multiple language skills are high on the IT hiring priority list. His goal is to eliminate development teams with extremely specific responsibilities. “We want teams that can do Web development whether the data resides on Windows or System i or whatever. We want to get away from teams only dealing with the front end or only dealing with the back end. We want people who can do the job from end to end.”
Pinter and Shulfer are pleased with the college graduates they’ve hired during the past two years, but it hasn’t replaced the company’s efforts to also hire experienced IT professionals when the job requirements make that a better choice. And Shulfer also pointed out that it is wrong to assume that hiring college graduates means hiring employees in their early 20s. More often than not, the Delta Dental hires have been people in their late 20s and early 30s who have been retrained as IT workers. “One of our oldest staff members was a recent grad,” Shulfer says. “These are people who re-directed their careers.”
Delta Dental isn’t the only IBM i shop working with the community colleges in the Midwest. The advisory boards at several schools that I found are nurtured by companies willing to hire graduates with the training that suits their needs. Jobs for graduates are a powerful incentive for the schools’ computer science departments in the recruitment of students, even when those students have never heard of IBM i before talking to an i-minded computer science instructor. Collaboration between companies running IBM i and local colleges with computer science departments is the foundation for developing new talent capable of stepping into enterprise computing.
Jody Karnes, CIO at CU*Answers, a credit union service organization, told me the technical team at her company recently contacted Muskegon Community College regarding students of that school’s RPG program.
“The future is based on young talent leading the way after they enter the market with the skills related to our current code, not just the code people are talking about in magazines, through the media, or over the net,” she says. “Millions and millions of lines of code and strong business foundations are built on technologies that simply do not get into the news or are not the flash points that attract people’s attention.”
“Many college programs are struggling to entice students into computer programming courses for core processing and business systems that aren’t as attractive or enticing as some development languages used in writing games and social media sites,” Karnes continues. “Therefore, businesses that still need talent for midrange and mainframe languages need to help fill the academic pipelines and spark interest for students considering future programming careers. These businesses will employee programmers for years to come.”
In the past, CU*Answers was more interested in hiring people with experience, but it has changed its emphasis to helping people build experience and cultivate their skills. Karnes is a proponent of establishing internships as a way of locating and obtaining talent. The company is also launching an employee reimbursement program that will cover up to 100 percent of the cost of tuition and books for IT-related courses at MCC.
Char Parker is the CIS coordinator and a member of the CIS faculty at Muskegon Community College, where computer programming students must complete two of three educational tracks to gain a degree. Those tracks are: .NET with C# and VB, open source with C and Java, and the IBM i track. Without Parker, there would likely be no IBM i-related classes. She, however, remains a strong advocate of the platform despite a slim enrollment in the IBM i curriculum. Last year there were six CIS graduates that completed the IBM i coursework.
Most of the calls she receives, from companies looking for graduates who have completed IBM i classes, originate in Michigan, but she’s also received inquiries from companies in Iowa, Wisconsin, and South Carolina. It’s mostly a word of mouth network that leads out-of-state companies to Parker and MCC.
Parker deserves a lot of credit for her efforts toward keeping IBM i skills in the MCC curriculum, building relationships with IBM i shops willing to work on the skills pipeline, and matching students with jobs. But she’d be the first to say she’s not a one-person army. She relies on others in the IBM i community for some guidance and support.
For instance, she leans on Jim Buck, who runs the IBM i program at the Gateway Technical College’s Kenosha, Wisconsin campus. Buck is also president of the Wisconsin Midrange Computer Professional Association, and has been down these same roads matching students and jobs for quite a few years. He has been successful in aligning colleges with companies looking for a skills pipeline. Larry Bolhuis at Frankeni Technology Consulting and Laura Ubelhor at Consultech Services are both closely connected with Parker and MCC. Bolhuis, an IBM i systems design and implementation expert, provides access to an IBM i for students at MCC. Ubelhor is assistant director of the COMMON Education Foundation, and is president of the Southeast Michigan iSeries User Group. She has been involved with internship programs that connect students with IBM i shops and in promoting career opportunities for students.
There is an informal network among the colleges and IBM, Parker says. Some employers find their way to the IBM Academic Initiative website, where colleges with IBM i curriculum are listed. Unfortunately, this listing is out of date, which leads to user frustrations.
Peter Glass, the program manager for IBM’s Power Systems Academic Initiative, told me there are plans in place that will make difference in promoting IBM i awareness at the collegiate level and facilitating the collaboration between colleges and IBM i shops.
Frankly, this is long overdue and similar promises have been made in the past relative to the IBM i platform. But here is what Glass says is being done for Power Systems, which includes AIX along with i.
It begins with an updated database for schools actively participating in the IBM Academic Initiative. It will include school name, location, faculty contact, and Power Systems-related courses being taught. Glass says there will be far better data one month from now.
There will also be a job board, which has been talked about for several years. Glass says he will work with the IBM sales team and client representatives “to establish an honest-to-goodness list of jobs available at client and business partner locations–not a search engine like popular online employment sites, but rather a well-maintained, current, accurate listing of real jobs at real shops and give students at member schools the ability to view them and go after them.”
Glass also promises an increase in Power Systems Academic Initiative marketing. The areas receiving attention include IBM technical events, an enhanced Web presence, engagements at the IBM Customer Briefing Centers, and direct contact with schools and universities.
I looked back to an IT Jungle article from May 2007 to find IBM promising to get 20,000 students trained, into internships and projects, and eventually getting them jobs in the workforce. I’d be surprised if 1 percent of that number was accomplished in the past five years if only the IBM i platform is taken into account.
Whether the gearing up of the Academic Initiative program will come to grips with the reality of the IBM i skills pipeline is about to be seen.