4 ways businesses can close the legacy tech skills gap

4 ways businesses can close the legacy tech skills gap
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As older IT professionals age out of the workforce, companies need to ensure they have the right knowledge and skills to keep their legacy tech running smoothly.

As older IT professionals age out of the workforce, companies are employing a variety of strategies to ensure the next generation of technologists can keep their legacy tech running smoothly.

"One of the most significant challenges businesses face when it comes to legacy technology is perception. Generally, in the IT industry, newer is better -- we're always looking for the next hot thing. But these legacy technologies -- like COBOL, mainframes, C and C++, among others -- still have value, and there's still the need for talent to manage and maintain these systems," says Ed Airey, marketing product manager for Microfocus.

Changing that perception requires companies to recruit young technology pros through culture, integration with new technologies and premium pay for talent that learns these skills, and through developing knowledge transfer programs that can help seasoned, experienced IT pros pass their knowledge down to the next generation.

Building a pipeline

One of the best ways to encourage the next generation of IT professionals to learn legacy skills and technology is by starting where they do - in schools and universities. In some cases, colleges and universities partner with IT companies to provide internships, or to jointly develop curriculum so that graduating students will have legacy tech skills when they graduate -- as well as a leg up when competing for jobs.

IBM, for example, works with institutions like Marist College to help develop curriculum around mainframe technology and necessary skills. And companies like Microfocus work with nearby schools to promote coursework and on-the-job training for their Visual COBOL solution, which integrates open systems technology on top of existing legacy COBOL solutions, Airey says.

"Many of our customers bring on local university students and put them through a 10 or 20 week program so they can learn not just COBOL, but how to apply the language in the real-world at these companies. Right now we have more than 350 universities worldwide that are teaching technology and skills like this using our software, courseware, our support and services, and we've been seeing an upswing in the number of subscribers to these programs," Airey says.

Related Story: 4 Ways Your Company Is Contributing to the IT Skills Gap

Culture initiatives

But it's not enough to teach the technology and skills, and show students how to apply them in the real world. CIOs must also work to generate excitement around how these legacy technologies are still used to drive innovation -- otherwise, they'll lose talent to startups and companies that the millennial generation finds sexier.

"One of the big problems is that many students don't see these older, established companies -- many of whom are in finance, in the government, retail -- as exciting and fun. CIOs and HR have to work together to figure out ways to make the work environment similar to that of a startup, or the talent they want will end up going to Google, or Facebook, or the next hot Silicon Valley startup," says Chris O'Malley, president of mainframe solutions company Compuware.

Compuware has emphasized culture; making sure the workplace is open and flexible, like a startup, O'Malley says. The younger workers operate in a fun, flexible environment that's cutting-edge and innovative, but that still delivers critical value for Compuware customers, he says.

Layering new technology on top of the old

Hand-in-hand with a startup-like environment is being able to integrate cutting-edge technology and development methodologies with existing legacy systems. CIOs are well aware that many flashy, user experience-driven applications and solutions like online banking, online travel reservations and booking, and many government systems like immigration and homeland security, are running on legacy systems that are decades old. What CIOs must do is simultaneously embrace emerging technology to attract up-and-coming talent.

"For CIOs, it's about shaping the message that they're not just getting value from legacy tech, but they're embracing next-generation tech and funding it appropriately. Cloud and mobile, for instance, will attract new talent, and that talent will take those and bridge the gap between them and legacy enterprise computing -- for companies, that's huge value!" says Airey.

Microfocus's Visual COBOL is one example, integrating open systems development languages and tools, like Java and the Eclipse IDE, on top of COBOL-based legacy tech, Airey says.

Compuware's tech aims to normalize mainframe technology and development by allowing for open systems development with modern languages like Java, also using the Eclipse IDE, O'Malley says. Compuware also uses the Agile development methodology.

"The mainframe would have a hard time competing if innovation couldn't happen using 'modern' processes and development tools. So, our tech lets developers use Java and C++, add visual user interfaces and improve user experiences, and do it using agile methodologies. We're delivering new products and feature enhancements every 90 days -- we're a great example of how to use Agile on a mainframe," O'Malley says.

Premium pay

Since legacy technology skills and experience are hard to come by, many companies are paying handsomely for talent, even for workers right out of college, Airey says. And those workers will continue to earn high salaries throughout their careers. Even older workers whose retirement plans were thwarted by the economic crash of 2008 are earning well above the industry average, Airey says.

"It's simple supply and demand -- the supply is limited while the demand keeps growing. We've heard from our university clients that they're easily able to place their students in jobs because they have mainframe or COBOL skills, and those skills are paid at a premium because they're so valuable," he says.

Legacy Skills knowledge transfer

Savvy firms also develop and implement solid knowledge transfer strategies and processes to make it easier for their seasoned talent to teach the next generation. That's not just general technology basics and processes, languages and systems, but also includes industry- and company-specific knowledge, says Steve Trautman, founder and principal of The Steve Trautman Company, a consulting firm.

"What's hardest for firms to handle is the proprietary knowledge -- they've got one or two guys who know not just Java programming, or about, say, banking technology, but the nitty gritty stuff like, 'how to move information from our system X into our system Y.' It's often so customized and individual to the company that they get stuck, especially if they're faced with losing that talent," Trautman says.

That's where a solid knowledge transfer strategy comes in: identifying what skills, knowledge and processes are mission-critical, who currently holds that knowledge, to whom it should be passed, and what talent shortcomings exist that must be addressed. Once a strategy is in place, businesses then focus on building a pipeline that will carry on the knowledge to drive the business forward.

"It's a three-step solution that defines the unique knowledge a workforce or team needs, who has it, who lacks it, and who is able to teach it to those who must learn it. Then, we create Skill Development Plans for each area of expertise. These include a clear list of what must be learned, questions that get at the wisdom behind the role, and the resources available to support knowledge transfer. We then set up an apprentice-mentor relationship to prepare the next generation," Trautman says.

The demand for legacy skills and knowledge isn't slowing down. Developing an effective plan for attracting, hiring and retaining talent with these skills is crucial if businesses are going to leverage their technical investments and be able to innovate for future success.

Updated/Edited: 10/19/2015 Added Compuware comments

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