Mainframe Propeller Head

Aug 6 2008   3:31PM GMT

The governator, COBOL, and minimum wage

Mark Fontecchio Mark Fontecchio Profile: Mark Fontecchio

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terminatorcobol.JPGIn an effort to pare down the state budget, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to start paying 200,000 state workers the minimum wage, which is $6.55 per hour. The only problem: To make that change, he’s going to need COBOL programmers, many of which he fired last week.

The payroll system is built on COBOL. And as a public-sector consulting firm CEO says in the Sacramento Bee story, COBOL programmers are hard to find. Some of those who came out of retirement to program COBOL part-time for the state were laid off. Others might ditch the state job and go looking for real money. From the Sacramento Bee story:

“COBOL programmers are hard to come by these days,” said Fred Forrer, the Sacramento-based CEO of MGT of America, a public-sector consulting firm. “It’s certainly not a language that is taught. Oftentimes, you have to rely on retired annuitants to come back and help maintain the system until you’re able to find a replacement.”

Retired state employees who have returned to work part-time for the state were among thousands of workers laid off last week.

Forrer said the system has tens of thousands of lines of code, so it is time-consuming to find and replace salaries for each job classification on an individual basis.

If Schwarzenegger wants the changes in payroll to be made, he’s going to have to start rehiring some of the COBOL programmers he fired. And I doubt they’ll be accepting minimum wage. Here are some selected comments from Slashdot:

First this:

There are plenty of COBOL Programmers out there, the problem is nobody in IT wants to hire old people.

And a response:

no – the problem is that no one wants to be paid minimum wage to program COBOL

And another response:

no the problem is social security pays more so why go back to 40 hours weeks of coding at that rate!

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  • PRM
    As an industry analyst covering this and related spaces for years, I see a lot more folks with COBOL skills looking for employment than I see employers looking for workers. Forrer is wrong - IBM and Micro Focus have academic initiatives for mainframe and COBOL skills (respectively), many community colleges are teaching COBOL in response to employer demand, and a vist to with site (IBM or Micro Focus) will list the universities involved. I suspect that Forrer's hiring issues are largely geographic - hiring is very much a regional issue - ther is no global supply of programmers unless you will relocate them from anywhere around the globe. And why the surprise that Arnold can't hire programmers for minimum wage? What "skill" can you hire for minimum wage? People acquire skills to avoid minimum wage jobs. Government has always had trouble attracting people because of comparatively low pay scales, and sorry guys but 10K lines of COBOL isn't a large problem. The REAL question that neither the NY Times (a truly bad article on the same topic - filled with hyperbole from a mis-informed Carnegie professor) nor this article visits is - in this day and age - why does ANYONE still do their own payroll? Purchase the service externally and redeploy the skilled people to other, core-competency efforts. Phil Murphy Principal Analyst Forrrester Research
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