"We just want to make sure that people are aware of the opportunities, how big and wide they are," McBain said. "Ninety five percent of the Fortune 1,000 are still running a good portion of their businesses on mainframes and probably 75 to 80 percent of the Royal Bank's business is running on mainframes."
Not having sufficient mainframe experts is only part of a larger issue, according to analyst Kahn. "There are an awful lot of people graduating with degrees in computer science who really aren't learning anything about enterprise computing," he said. "They don't understand large systems thinking."
Today's computer science graduates have grown up in a PC world as have many of their teachers. "Classes and projects tend to be measured in days and weeks, not weeks and months," Kahn said. "They really don't work on any big projects."
When looking at the success of IBM's mainframe program, "You have to ask where is it sticking to the wall?" Kahn said. He believes the sticky places are community colleges and night schools, which are more focused on turning out employable students rather than some of the more elite academic institutions that may more rigidly adhere to the requirements of the ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). "The more journeyman colleges are more focused on large systems thinking," he noted. Additionally, some universities reserve mainframes as a subject for study with graduates with at least a master's degree with computer science, according to Kahn.
It can be easier working with smaller schools and community colleges, notes Mike Bliss, program manager for IBM's Academic Initiative and Big Blue's director of eServer zSeries technical support and marketing. "They can get a class [up and running] quicker," he said. "They have less bureaucracy and are less specialized."
As part of his research, Kahn interviewed many computer science students. "They were all talking about job security and getting a good job and not being laid off in three months," he said. "There is a lot of security in large systems. Mainframes is a place where you're needed." Students' initial take when they heard the word "mainframe" was first to wonder if such computers were still around anymore and second to question their relevance to today's mainstream computing, according to Kahn. After being exposed to big iron and large systems thinking, some students' reaction was to note a significant disconnect from what they'd been taught in school and what they were discovering in the real world, he added.
Trying to encourage more students to learn about mainframes is all well and good, but there's a much more serious problem in U.S. and Canadian universities. The number of students signing up to study computer science is plummeting with Kahn estimating that the rate has fallen by 40 percent over the last three years. He even came across an elite institution he declined to name that has resorted to lowering the GPA (grade point average) requirements for its computer science course as a way to raise enrollment numbers. "The dot-com bust is responsible for a lot of it and students reading about outsourcing in the papers every day," said Kahn. "And, oh, by the way, it's [computer science is] really hard. Students are looking for what's fun and not hard."
Lying at the root of the problem is that many students abandon math or science way before they get to college, back in the ninth or 10th grade, according to Kahn.