The IBM i Job Environment, It’s a Changin’
September 15, 2021 Alex Woodie
The IBM i job market ain’t what it used to be. Change is a constant in this world, but the rate of professional change during the current pandemic is of particular interest at the moment. From new technologies and enlarging salary requirements to work-from-home and pending retirements, you could say we’re experiencing a period of punctuated equilibrium when it comes to working in the IBM i ecosystem.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies across many industries have adopted work-from-home mandates. IBM i shops, like all others who can, have moved strongly in that direction. Many have still not returned to the office yet, and with the Delta variant surging across the nation, they likely are not going to return to the office any time soon.
For Alan Seiden, the principal of New Jersey-based Seiden Group, working from home is nothing new. “Seiden Group has encouraged work-from-home since our inception,” he tells IT Jungle via email. “We began using Zoom and video calls well before the pandemic.”
But there’s a caveat to remote work, Seiden says. “To do it effectively requires communication skills, professional project management, and follow-up, to ensure strong results that are also personally rewarding for clients and staff,” he says.
From time to time, there have been reports of IBM i worker shortages. One recalls the CEO of a publicly traded, Virginia-based software company — a former high-level IBM executive no less — blaming a quarterly earnings miss in 2015 in part on an inability to find RPG programmers.
But, like the rumored existence of Bigfoot and the Chupacabra, it has proven quite difficult to pin these shortages down in reality. Alas, they appear to come and go over space and time (much like the mythical creatures reportedly do).
But in the post-pandemic world, the days of periodic worker shortages could be over, according to IBM i recruiter Patrick Staudacher, who says the work-from-home trend could be the salvation for IBM i shops and professionals alike.
“One of the biggest challenges within the IBM i community has always been the availability of talent or positions in a given geographic area,” says Staudacher, who is the president of Wisconsin-based Talsco Inc. “Prior to COVID, one of the first questions I would ask would be ‘Are you open to relocation?’ Most of the time, the answer was no. Post-COVID, I don’t have to ask that question. Nearly 100 percent of the candidates I speak with are looking for or open to remote work.”
Remote work is a game-changer for the IBM i platform, Staudacher says. “I believe this alone will have one of the biggest and long-lasting impacts on the IBM i platform and it’s the ability to successfully modernize,” he continues. “What good is this amazing platform if you can’t find the talent?”
Some IBM i shops still want their developers in the office at least a couple of days a week, but the majority of them are allowing for 100 percent remote work, Staudacher says. “For the most part, supply vs. demand is no longer an issue,” he says. “The focus for both clients and candidates is now to find exactly what they are looking for.”
A company’s ideal candidate may look like the mythical full-stack developer, who are about as tough to find in the real world as the Chupacabra. But according to Jim Buck, the co-founder and CEO of the Wisconsin-based IBM i training company imPower Technologies, IBM i shops may be willing to settle for folks who are well-versed in modern development methods and proficient with modern tools.
“Many employers are wanting RDi, SQL, modular RPG skills when they hire a developer,” Buck says. “[And] developers are understanding that RPGIII, SEU/PDM skills aren’t going to pay the bills in the coming years.”
Another trend that sticks out to Buck is the move to cross-train developers. “We’re seeing companies retraining current developers (PHP, C#, Java, etc.) in IBM i skills,” he says. “These developers like the new tools [including] RDi, ACS, SQL, and RPG [free].”
Buck is also seeing more business analysts moving sideways into the programming arena. “Companies have figured out that a developer that knows your business is essential and moving employees within the company makes sense,” he says. “We’re still seeing a strong trend of companies hiring recent college graduates and us training them in IBM i skills.”
As the baby-boomer aged IBM i pros retire, companies need replacements. According to Staudacher, this upcoming fall season is looking to be one of his busiest yet in that regard. “Clients are turning to us for both direct hire and consulting needs,” he says. “Both are in high demand. As you might guess a large number of our openings are due to pending retirements. Combine this with a push to modernize, there is a lot of demand in the market.”
It can be tough to replace a 40-year pro with a junior programmer who’s just out of college or a tech school. But it’s important to remember that the 40-year pro wasn’t born with all those skills; he or she developed them over a period of time. You’d be wise to give the junior programmer time to learn and grow too, says IBM i recruiter Bob Langieri, the CEO of California-based Excel Technical Services.
“Don’t be too critical about hiring someone new — give them the opportunity to learn your environment,” Langieri says. “Some other tricks for attracting and retaining staff are four-day work weeks, remote work some of the time (maybe all the time), and achievement-based bonuses, etc.”
Seiden Group has attracted a number of younger IBM i developers who are well-versed in open source technologies that are in high-demand, including people like Liam Allan, Stephanie Rabiani, and Calvin Buckley. While Seiden won’t divulge all of his youth recruiting secrets, he says having flexibility and strong ethics is a good place to start.
“I notice that IBM i professionals (much as we read about professionals in general) are looking for flexibility, the ability to work from wherever they are, the opportunity to learn and grow, and a feeling that their work is meaningful,” he says. “At Seiden Group we have relationships across the industry and tend to attract top professionals who share our values and professional ethics.”
Paying people a competitive wage is always important, but it’s even more important amid the upheaval of the pandemic and the high rate of inflation (5.4 percent through July 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index).
The good news for IBM i professionals is that salaries have never been higher. Langieri says most RPG programmers are now making between $105,000 and $120,000 annually, while some with highly sought skillsets are making even more (not including the mythical full-stack developers).
Langieri is seeing IBM i professionals with JD Edwards EnterpriseOne experience getting a base salary of $120,000 to $130,000, with bonuses ranging from $20,000 to $30,000. In many cases, the ability to work remotely is now part of the negotiation between employee and employer.
“Some companies that would never permit remote are now doing hybrid,” says Langieri, adding that he just placed a “100 percent remote contract to hire” at an amount greater than $110,000. This particular company had been looking for the right person for three years, Langieri says, and after two folks didn’t work out, it finally hired the worker full-time after several months of contracting. The IBM i professional “would not sign the offer letter until they specified in the offer letter that this would be a permanent remote position,” he says.
However, some lower-level jobs are not fetching as much as Langieri had hoped. He recently placed a junior programmer with a year-and-a-half of experience for $55,000, which was 10 percent to 20 percent below what he thought they should have gotten.
At the end of the day, the movement in the employment rolls is good for IBM i pros and good for IBM i shops alike (even if it results in higher personnel costs). When Buck speaks with recruiters, he’s getting the feeling that modern skills are fetching a premium. Existing IBM i professionals should take note.
“There are a number of developers out there that need to upgrade themselves, and these people are harder to place,” Buck says. “This tells me that companies are deciding to update what they have, rather than drive off the ‘let’s move off the platform’ cliff.”
At the end of the day, that’s good news for all of us.