Imagine today's computer science students experiencing the kind of cocktail party thrown for Benjamin Braddock, Dustin Hoffman's character, by his parents in the 1967 movie The Graduate. As the students ponder their futures, various figures sidle up with one-word suggestions for careers. "Java," "Linux" and "Internet" you'd expect to hear whispered, but "mainframes"? Not so much.

"The mainframe has had one of the worst PR campaigns of the last 15 years," said mainframe analyst Mike Kahn, managing director of research firm The Clipper Group. "In the mid-'90s, the mainframe was declared dead by the industry, and that wasn't so far from the truth."

The mainframe's value proposition was completely out of sync with what was going on in the mid-1990s as companies embraced PCs and decentralised business operations, Kahn said. Today, however, many organisations are looking once more at centralising their IT functions, so the mainframe is swinging back into favour in some quarters.

Opportunities in big iron are also on the rise as companies look to replace the staffers who have been tending the computer behemoths and are now heading for retirement. At the same time, firms in China, parts of Eastern Europe and elsewhere have recently purchased or are looking to invest in mainframes as they beef up their computing power.

Through work with educational institutions and corporations, and under the banner of its Academic Initiative, IBM has committed to having 20,000 mainframe-trained professionals in the global market by 2010. Big Blue hopes to double the number of universities and colleges worldwide signing up for its zSeries mainframe courses from 150 last month to 300 by the end of this year. Factoring in sales of associated software and storage, analysts estimate that IBM's mainframe business generates about 25 per cent of the company's revenue.

"It's not an issue hiring people with mainframe skill sets, but we are having difficulty in finding young people [with those skills]," said Murray McBain, vice president of technology at the Royal Bank of Canada, an industry sponsor of the IBM mainframe programme. He has been working with the faculty at Mohawk College, one of the Canadian educational institutions offering the IBM course in big iron.

When addressing computer science students at Mohawk, the first thing McBain did was to bring them up to date on mainframes and their role in computing. "When we talked about Java, SOA and multiple operating systems, you could see it clicking," he said. "They weren't falling asleep on us; we were using terms they understood."

When he visited Mohawk, McBain took three of his senior managers with him, each with between 15 and 25 years of experience working with mainframes, so that the students could appreciate that "real people are still working on mainframes," he said. Next, he hopes to take the experience at Mohawk and replicate it at other Canadian schools. McBain believes that IBM's message to students becomes more powerful when the vendor visits universities together with one or more of its customers that use the zSeries hardware.

"We just want to make sure that people are aware of the opportunities, how big and wide they are," McBain said. "Ninety five per cent of the Fortune 1,000 are still running a good portion of their businesses on mainframes, and probably 75 per cent to 80 per cent of the Royal Bank's business is running on mainframes."

Not having sufficient mainframe experts is only part of a larger issue, according to Kahn. "There are an awful lot of people graduating with degrees in computer science who really aren't learning anything about enterprise computing," he said. "They don't understand large-systems thinking."

Today's computer science graduates have grown up in a PC world -- as have many of their teachers. "Classes and projects tend to be measured in days and weeks, not weeks and months," Kahn said. "They really don't work on any big projects."

When looking at the success of IBM's mainframe programme, "you have to ask, where is it sticking to the wall?" Kahn said. His answer: community colleges and night schools, which are more focused on turning out employable students than some of the more elite institutions that may more rigidly adhere to the requirements of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.

"The more journeyman colleges are more focused on large-systems thinking," Kahn said. Additionally, some universities reserve mainframes as a subject for study by graduates with at least a master's degree in computer science, according to Kahn.

It can be easier working with smaller schools and community colleges, said Mike Bliss, program manager for IBM's Academic Initiative and director of eServer zSeries technical support and marketing. "They can get a class [up and running] quicker," he said. "They have less bureaucracy and are less specialised."

As part of his research, Kahn interviewed many computer science students. "They were all talking about job security and getting a good job and not being laid off in three months," he said. "There is a lot of security in large systems. Mainframes is a place where you're needed."

Students' initial take when they heard the word mainframe was to wonder if such computers are still around and then to question their relevance to today's mainstream computing, according to Kahn. After being exposed to big iron and large-systems thinking, some students noted a significant disconnect from what they had been taught in school and what they were discovering in the real world, he added.

Falling numbers
Despite efforts to encourage more students to learn about mainframes, the number of students at US and Canadian schools signing up to study computer science is plummeting; Kahn estimated that the rate has fallen by 40 per cent over the past three years. He even found one elite institution he declined to name that has lowered the GPA requirements for its computer science course as a way to raise enrolment.

"The dot-com bust is responsible for a lot of it, and students reading about outsourcing in the papers every day," said Kahn. "And, oh, by the way, [computer science is] really hard. Students are looking for what's fun and not hard."

At the root of the problem is that many students abandon math or science before they get to college, according to Kahn.

Like Kahn, McBain is also concerned about the general drop-off in computer science students. When he asked professors at Mohawk what students were studying instead of IT, the answer tended to be biomedicine and forensics.

"It's a bit of the CSI syndrome," McBain said, referring to a US TV series set in Las Vegas, Miami and New York that focuses on the work of fictional crime scene investigation teams. "We need to create the same syndrome for IT," he said, so students have more dynamic associations with careers in computer science. McBain suggested that companies could form an industry consortium to help encourage students to study IT. Such a body could visit high schools and universities and lay out the potential job opportunities.

Universities in the mainframe programme are asking IBM how they can define terms related to mainframe computing to aid students' job searching, according to Susan LeVangia, curriculum manager for the company's Academic Initiative zSeries program and a senior software engineer.

Every relationship IBM has with an educational institution is different. Some take all the IBM teaching materials, some take part, and others use the tools as a basis for building their own mainframe course curriculum, according to Bliss. The IBM teaching materials mostly consist of PowerPoint modules with 20 to 30 slides in each module and include speaker notes and lab exercises, LeVangia said.

IBM has established mainframe hubs that universities can log into for mainframe access if they don't have their own hardware. The US hub is at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY, and can be accessed by any university in the world. Thirty to 40 universities are utilising the US hub at any one time, according to Bliss.

IBM has other mainframe hubs in Brazil, China, Eastern Europe and India and is looking at adding more hubs in Europe, he said.

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