There Is No Lack Of RPG Programmers, IBM i Community Contends
March 4, 2015 Alex Woodie
Balderdash! That’s the general response to a story we ran two weeks ago in this newsletter about Computer Sciences Corp. blaming its earnings miss in part on an RPG programmer shortage. “There is no shortage of RPG programmers,” says one RPG programmer in the Northeast, “but there is a shortage of RPG programmers who will work at 1985 wages.”
CSC said a lack of RPG talent was partly to blame for the company’s $230 million revenue shortfall during in the fourth quarter. “RPG is not a programming language where a lot of people are learning it today, so there is a finite supply,” CSC’s president and CEO, Mike Lawrie, told analysts. “We had difficulty recruiting and getting those people on-boarded in time to be able to bill all the work that was under contract in the quarter.”
The lack of RPG coders is just one of the company’s problems, and accounted for about $25 million to $40 million of the revenue shortfall, Lawrie explained. Nevertheless, the fact that Lawrie specifically mentioned RPG is an indication that the distribution and availability of RPG programmers is bubbling to the surface. “I think this [difficulty in recruiting RPG programmers] is a result of a much tighter labor market,” Lawrie said.
There isn’t a shortage of RPG programmers, says Bob Langieri, the CEO of Excel Technical Services, a job placement company based in Orange County, California. But there is a shortage of RPG programmers who also have all the other skills and fill all the demographic checkboxes that companies want, he says.
“There are plenty of RPG programmers still looking for jobs here in the USA, but they are mostly 55-plus years old, and companies want a ‘golden needle’ in a haystack with both legacy RPG skills as well as some skills with the new open tools,” Langieri tells IT Jungle. “Employers are not realistic and not willing to be flexible.”
That situation sounds familiar to Doug Englander, an RPG programmer in Texas. “In the past, I have looked for RPG positions, where my skills fit the requirements, but because I did not have some obscure skill, or did not have every one of the requirements listed, I was not considered,” he tells IT Jungle. “I am a little skeptical that there is this ‘shortage’ that CSC is complaining about.”
The RPG market is a dynamic entity and it doesn’t always follow overall employment trends. RPG programmers may have to work for less money in some big metro regions, such as Southern California, where Langieri says he knows of some RPG programmers who have gone years without finding new jobs. But in the Midwest, it’s not uncommon to hear of RPG jobs going unfilled, which indicates a tighter market and pushes salaries higher.
While CSC is based in Falls Church, Virginia, it has open positions for RPG programmers in several geographies, including California, Illinois, and Bangalore. “They probably are having trouble finding RPG programmers in India because it is not being taught or [because the Indians have] no interest in learning a language they consider dead,” he says. “If I were embarking on a programming career, I would choose C, C#, Java, Ruby, Perl, PHP, or other ‘open’ languages because my career would evolve faster.”
Money is obviously a factor in what career path new computer science graduates choose. CSC attempted to address its problem in part by raising the wages of the open positions, according to Lawrie. The spot shortage of RPG talent has also caught the eyes of college professors charged with building RPG curriculum.
“We are doing everything that we can at Gateway to reduce this problem,” says Jim Buck, the programming instructor at Gateway Technical College. “What really needs to happen is that companies need to go to their local colleges and tell them that they need these type of skills!”
“Having taught RPG at the community college level, I know that schools won’t offer those courses unless there’s a demand from students,” IS consultant Matthew Qualls of Ohio says in a LinkedIn post. “IBM needs to market the IBM i. There’s no name recognition. Now if they associate it with Watson, that’s some brand recognition!”
A little assistance from IBM would also help. “IBM’s Academic Initiative is building, but speaking as a soon-to-be RPG software developer graduate, having reinforcement from IBM would have pushed me to work toward this programming language sooner,” says David Woolman, who is currently enrolled in Buck’s program at Gateway Technical College, in a LinkedIn post.
There may not be a widespread shortage of RPG programmers at the moment, but we may be working toward that situation in the future, said Lee Yarrington, an RPG programmer in Michigan. “Universities don’t teach the IBM i anymore; [you] only get that in a community college,” Yarrington says in a LinkedIn post. “There is more than RPG that the IBM i can do, much more.”
The changing face of the American workforce is also a factor here. Twenty years ago, it was common for RPG programmers to stick with one company for most of their career, if not their entire career. Salaries were generally high and benefits were good. That’s not always the case today.
“Programmers today are a commodity, not a career,” says Dave Abramowitz, an IT manager at a firm in the Northeast. “When I see open positions, the first question is ‘What’s the rate?’ Agencies will try to trap you by asking you how much you want. As soon as you mention a rate equivalent to say 50 percent more than you made in 1988, they don’t want to speak to you any further.”
Nowadays it’s a common practice for companies to hire programmers who were born overseas and will work for less than native-born programmers. “Let’s face it: They can always get an H1-B holder with a [perhaps fake] stunning resume that will open doors, but will not solve business or technical issues,” Abramowitz says. “I believe that CSC is a prime example of getting the guy in at a low price and a high margin regardless of actual skill. So many of our colleagues have simply switched careers or retired rather than work eight-hour days for peanuts.”
What is your opinion? Is the RPG programmer shortage real? Will we see it result in higher wages and a wave of newly minted IBM i talent out of colleges and universities? Or is this a one-time blip that’s more the result of managerial incompetence and corporate greed than real market dynamics? Let us know by using the handy dandy IT Jungle contact page to share your opinion.