Looking for job security? Try Cobol

As long as there are mainframes, there will be Cobol. Learn the language and the culture and you might land a job that that lasts until retirement

A career as a Cobol programmer might not be as sexy as slinging Java code or scripting in Ruby, but if you buckle down and learn hoary old Cobol, you could land one of the safest, most secure jobs in IT.

Analyst reports indicate that Cobol salaries are on the upswing. The language is easy to learn, there's a healthy demand for the skills, and offshore Cobol programmers are in short supply -- plus, the language itself holds the promise of longevity. All that loose talk about mainframes going away has subsided, and companies committed to big iron need Cobol pros to give them love.

[ To learn about other skills in high-demand during tight times, read "Recession-proof IT jobs." ]

In a troubled economy, with analysts forecasting IT spending slowdowns, secure IT positions could quickly become scarcer than they are today. Seasoned Cobol programmers, in contrast, "should be in pretty good shape job-wise. If they have a position at an organization that intends to keep its legacy Cobol apps, then they are probably set for life," says industry analyst Jeff Gould, director of research at Interop Systems. "Many mainframe customers with large mission-critical Cobol apps are locked into the mainframe platform. Often there is no equivalent packaged app, and it proves to be just too expensive to port the legacy Cobol to newer platforms like Intel or AMD servers."

Why Cobol is alive and well
William Conner, a senior manager in Deloitte's technology integration practice, comments that "salaries for Cobol programmers have been rising in recent years due to a lack of supply. Demand is outstripping supply because many Cobol programmers are reaching retirement age and college leavers tend to focus on Java, XML, and other modern languages."

Deloitte also found that three-fifths of respondents are actually developing new and strategic Cobol-based applications. Yes, right here in 2008.

Retired Cobol programmer William C. Kees, who coded in Cobol for 25 years, says that the language is easy to learn and that he mastered it without taking any classes. Another career Cobol programmer requesting anonymity seconds that sentiment: "It's easy to learn, read, and follow. After looking at code for .Net or VisualBasic, give me Cobol any day. At least it's readable."

What's more, Cobol programmers are not as prone to having their job outsourced, according to Brian Keane, CEO for Dextrys, an outsourcing company based in China and the United States. "The Chinese don't have mainframe experience. Because Chinese computer science graduates have come late to the technology table they are starting with the latest architectures and systems and don't have the experience with legacy languages and systems," he says.

Latin American countries are in a situation similar to that of the United States, according to Gabriel Rozman, executive vice president for emerging markets at Tata Consultancy Services. "Many Latin countries are still stuck with legacy mainframes where Cobol is a common skill," says Rozman, "so that anyone who has [that and] the latest Java skills, for example, would be sought after."

Bridging the old and the new
Mainframes aren't going anywhere mainly because they do an extremely reliable job with high-volume transaction processing. But increasingly, companies are benefiting from integrating legacy mainframe Cobol applications with the rest of the enterprise, to leverage their power and work toward real-time business operations.

SOA, for instance, opens all sorts of opportunities to expose Cobol apps to the wider world. "Many mainframe users are actively pursuing SOA as a way to integrate their legacy Cobol apps with newer nonmainframe apps," explains Jeff Gould of Interop Systems.

"There's a new kind of job emerging for which people need to have 'bridging skills,' where they understand the importance of existing systems and how to integrate those with modern systems and deploy Cobol into modern architectures," points out Arunn Ramadoss, head of the Micro Focus Academic Connections Program, which partners with colleges, universities, and other institutions to teach Cobol to students.

By 2007, the number of universities and colleges offering Cobol classes was dwindling. But that has reversed dramatically. In May of last year, Micro Focus launched its academic program to focus on Cobol as well as other core IT skills by providing member universities with free access to requisite technology and teaching tools.

[ Can't get enough Cobol? Try Neil McAllister's take on California's Cobol conundrum. ]

Since last May, Micro Focus has signed up at least one college or university every week; in late September, it surpassed 50 U.S. academic institutions. "We're expecting 7,500 students to graduate with Cobol skills next year, and in the years after we hope to boost that number to 10,000 or 15,000," Ramadoss says.

While Micro Focus boasts what appears to be the largest university program, would-be Cobol programmers do have other options, including community colleges, private so-called business schools, and IT training classes.

Landing a job in a Cobol shop
Deloitte's Conner says that the firm is "already seeing significant demand for Cobol expertise," especially in financial services firms, where Cobol continues to be prevalent. So what does it take to get a position at a company that needs Cobol skills?

No, you don't need to get a crew cut. In fact, the desired qualifications match those for many other IT jobs. Prospective employers are looking for Cobol people who understand business, have a diverse skill set, and possess the ability to learn new technologies as necessary, according to Lou Washington, a senior marketing manager in Cincom's control manufacturing business solutions group.

J.D. Williams, a U.K.-based direct home shopping company, considers Cobol an essential skill when hiring programmers, according to IT training manager Mike Madden: "We've got a development shop of about 100 people, and 60 of them know Cobol. They're all actively coding in it or using it in their analysis." The company has a huge legacy system built on Cobol and Assembler that includes more than 5,000 programs.

There's even work for those who prefer -- or are at least willing to take -- short-term gigs. Andrew Larkin, an IT project manager in the legal field, learned Cobol in 1998 to leverage the boom in IT jobs due to the Y2K craze; since then, he's found that "the primary suppliers of Cobol jobs are either very large companies looking for maintenance hires or head hunting firms with contract positions to fill, most of which last less than a year."

J.D. Williams' Madden contends that contract work is a solid fallback plan for Cobol programmers. "I would quite happily go back to being a freelance Cobol programmer because that's quite secure, too," the IT training manager says.

Retired programmer Kees believes that IT shops "could very well still have Cobol shreds existing" decades into the future. "Cobol will be around for some time -- maybe till 2050, I don't know," Kees adds. "But I would bet it will still be in use when I croak."

Ephraim Schwartz contributed to this report.


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.