All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

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Will IBM's Academic Initiative help the System i5 community? Well, yes and no. It may help the Business Partners who claim they can't find qualified IBM-certified systems engineers (required to sell IBM products), but I do not see it benefiting the typical company using the System i5 platform. Companies that use the System i5, with a few rare exceptions, will not hire an entry-level programmer.

Let me shed some light on the demand and supply for System i5 talent from my perspective. I am the owner of a recruitment and staffing firm and have been placing people exclusively in the IBM midrange arena since 1973, in the early days of RPG II and 96-column cards. I have seen many ups and downs in the economy, and through it all I have seen the number of System 3s, 38s, AS/400s, and iSeries grow...until recently. Demand for RPG programmers, computer operators, and IT managers enjoyed phenomenal growth up until about 2000, when the Y2K remediation boom ended.

In the heydays of RPG III and even the early part of RPG400, I used to say, "If you can spell RPG, you'll get hired." Companies were in a bidding war to find talent, and they typically paid recruiters to find experienced programmers, analysts, operators, and managers.

During the late 1980s, IBM managed to get new AS/400s into community colleges around the country, and they taught RPG II and RPG III and basic operations. The classes filled up for about two or three years, but when people were unable to find jobs, enrollment went down, and, predictably, many of the schools dropped the curriculum. At about the same time, networking found legitimacy with Novell certifications and, later, Microsoft certifications. The colleges offered more of the PC, networking, and Web design classes, and they had full enrollments. And companies were willing to hire those who had certifications, regardless of their experience.

My user group, OCEAN User Group, has worked with our local community college to use its computer lab equipped with two iSeries systems for our "hands-on" labs once or twice per year. We fill all of the 25 seats every time, but these are experienced RPG developers who are coming to learn SQL, Java, and .NET. We hire our own trainer for the day, and it is a success. If only we could convince the college to offer a semester-long course on advanced RPG, Java, WDSC, or related iSeries topics, we believe that out of our membership of almost 400 people, we could easily get 25 to enroll each semester for a night class or online learning. I believe that most people who are already experienced with the iSeries/System i platform would take advantage of the opportunity to improve their skills. Yes, there are COMMON Conferences and regional events like the OCEAN Technical Conference, but not everyone can make it to these educational events.

In the iSeries world, companies are demanding more "added skills" besides RPG. If someone who is wearing three hats leaves a company, the company wants a replacement who already knows all three skills. Companies seem to be unwilling to allow people to learn some of the skills on the job. I believe many managers are afraid to fail, so they pass up good people who could be up to speed in three or four months. Some of the best hires I have seen over the years were those where the person did not have all the skills, but managers took a chance and gave someone the opportunity to prove themselves. Some were out of the business for a year or two and were extremely grateful for a second chance.

Keep in mind that recruiters would not be in business if most companies were willing to hire people who only had training or minimal practical experience. Some (many?) managers are truly understaffed, and they feel pressured to hire someone who is productive immediately. Some ERP companies like JD Edwards, in the early days, convinced companies that they needed to hire experienced JD Edwards developers or consultants to get the expected results with their software, and that created a whole new consulting practice. Kind of like you would not take your Mercedes to your neighborhood mechanic who works on GM and Ford cars.

Today, recruiters have really evolved into search firms rather than employment agencies. Our job is to seek out specialized talents to fit an employer's needs, regardless of how difficult it might be. During early 2000 to 2003, there was a backlash from the high demand of programmers from Y2K. With more people unemployed, companies demanded even more skills when hiring, and in many cases they got lucky and found someone. In today's hiring market, if employers cannot find the right person, it is usually because either they have required so many "must-have" skills that it is like searching for a needle in a haystack or they are unwilling to pay a competitive salary.

M&A: A Very Bad Word!

In today's market, there are fewer people available in the System i5 market as well as fewer jobs. Part of the reason is more development projects are involved with Java or .NET, more support is needed for Windows servers, PC techs and Help Desk take budget dollars away from iSeries applications and support, and some projects have been outsourced (this is really minor and over-played), but the biggest reason for a lack of demand is mergers and acquisitions (M&A). These are the biggest job killers for IT. After all, when you merge two IT environments, you don't need two directors or data center managers. It's unlikely that both companies are in the same geographic area and unlikely that you are running on the same platform. Once the data is migrated to the winning platform, you don't need the IT staff of both groups. Every week, dozens of mergers and acquisitions affect the demand and supply for workers. Some RPG people have retired, and more will join them over the next 10 years.

Oh, I forgot to mention that salaries for System i5 people are generally less than for other disciplines.

If managers of System i5 shops would open up their minds to hiring entry-level personnel or an intern, the Academic Initiative could have an impact on the future success of the platform. Managers also need to fight for more dollars for education and for additional headcount to meet strategic goals and deadlines. Also, IBM needs to influence its customers' executive management to hire directors and managers who will support a long-term strategy of keeping enterprise systems on the System i5 platform. Too often, companies hire "network-centric" directors or managers, and the first thing they want to do is get off the System i5 because it is unfamiliar and they have no interest in learning it.

While I am a diehard supporter of IBM and the System i5, and even a stockholder, if my college students wanted to get into the computer field, my professional advice would be to learn Java or C# or Microso...(I have trouble saying it) so that they would find a job fast, make 25 percent more than RPG developers, and be able to move out of my house and not come back except to take me out for dinner since they will be making great money.

Please, no angry mobs or tar and feathers! I am really on your side! Let me know what you think.

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