Academia needs more support to tackle the IT skills gap

New global research with academic institutions reveals a need to educate the educators and generate student demand for COBOL programming skills to meet business demand

7 March 2013

Skills in programming languages like COBOL, CICS and JCL are essential to support business-critical IT systems that underpin many organizations today. However, new global research by Micro Focus (LSE:MCRO.L), the leading provider of enterprise application modernization, testing and management solutions, explains why these programmers are increasingly hard to locate, recruit and retain, showing a worrying disparity between the university courses being offered and the skills required by commercial organizations. A huge 73% of academics running IT courses at universities around the globe do not have COBOL programming as part of their curriculum. That’s despite 71% believing that today’s business organizations will continue to rely on applications built using the COBOL language for the next 10+ years.

A poll of academic leaders from 119 universities across the world saw more than half (58%) say they believed COBOL programming should be on their curriculum, with 54% estimating the demand for COBOL programming skills would increase or stay the same over the next 10 years. That’s a far cry from today’s reality. Of the 27% confirming COBOL programming was part of their curriculum, only 18% had it as a core part of the course, while the remaining 9% made it an elective component.

Impact on the job market

According to the research respondents, in the last year the largest volume of skilled developers introduced to the job market by their academic institutions was Java programmers, followed by C# and C++ programmers. COBOL developers fared the worst, with significantly fewer graduates than the rest.

  • 32% introduced more than 30 Java developers to the job market. 21% of those delivered more than 51 Java developers.
  • 16% introduced more than 30 C# and C++ programmers.
  • Only 5% introduced more than 30 COBOL developers to the market.

Providing a perspective on the value of teaching COBOL, Bill Marlow, Professor at Durham College, Canada, said: “Our goal is to prepare students to transition to the job market as fully functioning IT professionals. For as long as I can remember we have always taught COBOL as part of our curriculum. Many of our graduates finish and get jobs immediately because of COBOL and the existing demand within the market. In particular we feel this is a result of the emphasis we place on students developing mixed language capabilities, for example using the COBOL backend with another language on the front to display it across platforms and devices. As a result students need to be somewhat more advanced but we feel this is the future of the language.”

Corroborating this, Michael Coughlan, Lecturer at University of Limerick said: “COBOL and legacy systems is a core part of our Graduate Diploma in Computing. In a particularly competitive job market, it is vital to give students a way to differentiate themselves from other graduates. Our students have experience in modern programming languages and practices but also know how to ensure compatibility with legacy applications written in older languages. This differentiates them quite significantly from the majority of undergraduates leaving university who may only really have Java, or similar language skills, and are distinctly lacking in knowledge of core legacy systems.”

The education challenge

When asked how they felt about teaching COBOL skills, whether or not they taught it today, 60% of academic leaders said the more language skills a developer learns the better; a mixed language capability increases the chances of employment. 21% said they felt learning COBOL skills was a future-proofed career option as demand outweighs supply, making it a smart choice. That said, 22% of respondents had a negative viewpoint, suggesting a need to educate some of the educators.

  • 14% said COBOL was un-cool and outdated and that other modern languages were more exciting and useful
  • 5% went as far as to say COBOL was dead and that it had no future
  • 3% claimed no prior knowledge of COBOL at all

Research respondents were also asked how they thought their IT course students felt about learning COBOL skills and, unsurprisingly, 65% gave a negative response. 39% said their students viewed COBOL as un-cool and outdated, 13% said they believed COBOL was dead and 15% said they wouldn’t know what COBOL was. It is no surprise that when asked what academic institutions needed to support a COBOL curriculum, the largest proportion (43%) cited the top priority as students requesting it. This suggests a serious need for better education of potential programming students before they select their courses.

The research results outlining poor COBOL course provision and weak student demand were further underscored by poor knowledge among many academics of the roles taken on by graduates from their courses. Nearly a third (29%) did not know if the programming skills of their graduates, whatever the language, helped them gain employment.

The value of government intervention

The skills gap is a problem that pervades the IT industry and has become serious enough even for governments to intervene. However, when asked if government was doing enough to assist in addressing the IT skills gap issue, the majority of academic leaders (64%) believed it was not. Of those:

  • Nearly a quarter (24%) felt the problem was being ignored and that no active government-sponsored programs were in place.
  • 40% said government programs were in place but that they didn’t believe they were the right ones so they wouldn’t make a difference in addressing the skills gap.
  • Conversely, 26% said active government programs were in place, however the majority of those (23%) were not sure how effective they would be in addressing the problem and making a real difference. A bold 11% asserted there isn’t really an IT skills gap problem, so there is no need for real government intervention.

The need for greater collaboration between business and academia

  • 63% of respondents said facilitating, sponsoring and encouraging greater collaboration between business organizations and academic communities teaching COBOL programming was important.
  • However, only 25% currently use an interface, such as a social media community or forum, or jobs board, through which existing students can connect with business organisations as a prospective employer for COBOL based programming skills.
  • Of the 52% who don’t use an interface, over half said they would value one.
  • Overall, 58% said they believe cultural change is required if students, academic institutions and businesses are going to be fit for the future in relation to COBOL programming skills.

Kevin Brearley, Senior Director of Product Management at Micro Focus, said: “The answer to the growing skills gap starts with education. Business organizations and academic institutions need to work together to showcase COBOL as a relevant, in-demand business skill with a promising future. Young developers need to be encouraged and more industry relevant IT qualifications and further educational courses need to be introduced. After all, out of a total of 310 billion lines of code, 240 billion lines are COBOL. It’s the language behind 65% of all active code and 85% of all daily business transactions. Business requires these skills to support existing applications, but also to shape and develop the applications of tomorrow.”

Notes to Editors

Additional Research Findings

  • Interestingly, 46% believe COBOL has a strength over other programming languages being taught because they believe it is easier to learn versus Java and C++. 29% believe it is easier to learn than C# and VB.NET
  • Academic leaders from UK universities estimated an average starting salary for a COBOL programming student at £25,250
  • Full graphical representation can be seen by downloading the infographic.

Demand for COBOL

  • COBOL supports 90% of Fortune 500 business systems every day
  • 70% of all critical business logic and data is written in COBOL
  • COBOL connects 500 million mobile phone users every day
  • COBOL applications manage the care of 60 million patients every day
  • COBOL powers 85% of all daily business transactions processed
  • COBOL applications move 72,000 shipping containers every day and process 85% of port transactions
  • 95% of all ATM transactions use COBOL
  • COBOL enables 96,000 vacations to be booked every year
  • COBOL powers 80% of all point-of-sale transactions
  • There are 200 more COBOL transactions per day than Google + You Tube searches worldwide
  • $2 trillion worth of mainframe applications in corporations are written in COBOL
  • 1.5 million new lines of COBOL code are written every day
  • 5 billion lines of new COBOL code are developed every year
  • The total investment in COBOL technologies, staff and hardware is estimated at $5 trillion
  • An estimated 2 million people are currently working in COBOL

Sources: Aberdeen Group; Giga Information Group; Database & Network Journal; The COBOL Report;; Tactical Strategy Group; The Future of COBOL Report.

About Micro Focus

Micro Focus, a member of the FTSE 250, provides innovative software that allows companies to dramatically improve the business value of their enterprise applications. Micro Focus Enterprise Application Modernization, Testing and Management software enables customers' business applications to respond rapidly to market changes and embrace modern architectures with reduced cost and risk. For additional information please visit

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