Dearth of COBOL programmers threatens business

7 March 2013
By Edward Gent
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A new report has found that few university's are teaching the COBOL programming language despite it being the mainstay of many business systems

A new report has found that few university's are teaching the COBOL programming language despite it being the mainstay of many business systems

A mismatch between supply and demand of COBOL programming skills could have “serious repercussions” for businesses.

COBOL (Common Business-Oriented language) was introduced in the 1950s and quickly became the premier language for writing business software, but the switch from mainframe computers to desktop PCs saw challengers like Java and .NET overtake it as the language of choice.

Despite its dwindling popularity huge amounts of the modern world’s infrastructure is still based on the language – a cause of concern for businesses as a new study reveals that 73 per cent of academics running university IT courses around the globe do not have COBOL programming as part of their curriculum.

The research by business software firm Micro Focus also found that 71 per cent of those academics believe today’s business organisations will continue to rely on applications built using COBOL for at least ten more years.

Michael Coughlan, computer science lecturer at the University of Limerick, said: “It has a huge dominance in industry as a legacy system. All banking, insurance, those companies are working off COBOL. Even now a recent survey showed a significant amount of new development is being done in COBOL.”

The poll of academic leaders from 119 universities across the world saw 58 per cent say they believed COBOL programming should be on their curriculum, with 54 per cent estimating the demand for COBOL programming skills would increase or stay the same over the next 10 years.

But of the 27 per cent confirming COBOL programming was part of their curriculum, only 18 per cent had it as a core part of the course, while the remaining 9 per cent made it an elective component.

Coughlan, who teaches COBOL as a core part of the university’s graduate diploma in computing, said a number of factors were responsible for COBOL’s decline with the slow uptake of object-oriented programming, which was not introduced until 2002, a key factor.

But he also believes a certain amount of “intellectual snobbery”, due to the language not being mathematically based and created by United States Navy officer Grace Hopper rather than academics, is at play.

The survey also revealed a worrying trend in student attitudes with 39 per cent of academics saying their students viewed COBOL as uncool and outdated, while 13 per cent said they believed COBOL was dead and 15 per cent said they wouldn’t know what COBOL was.

“They still perceive COBOL as being an old financial language,” he said. “All the new exciting development is happening in those newer languages, whereas COBOL is the mainstay of business.”

The lack of university training in the language means many businesses are forced to send IT workers on expensive courses to learn the language, making ready-trained graduates a valuable commodity, but Coughlan believes there are more advantages to learning COBOL than simply improved job prospects.

He said: “A problem we have at the moment is that students only really learn one language, normally Java or some Java derivative. In a four-year degree that is the only programming language they learn.

“COBOL is a very different language and that perhaps expands their minds by doing something completely different. If you always learn the same language of variations of it you don’t get much mental stimulation from that, you don’t see how you can do things differently.”

Product director at Micro Focus Ed Airey, whose company is a leading supplier of COBOL interfaces, believes that universities, businesses and governments all need to take action.

“I think first of all we need to recognise this is an issue and agree something needs to be done,” he said. “I think at this point in time there is a bit of a disconnect between what business is doing, in terms of not only keeping the lights on but providing a service to customers, and what it takes to do that.”

He believes governments can help address the problem by offering scholarships to students studying the language and funding to encourage institutions to add the language to their curriculum.

“If we don’t come up with a solution and help businesses address this issue, I think ultimately what will happen will be forcing the hand of business leaders,” he said.

“They may be forced into a drastic decision to change technology which will have serious repercussions for services and various aspects of their businesses.”

And Airey hopes his firm’s research will go some way to starting a dialogue on the issue.

He said: “We really have to have free flowing communication between academic stakeholders, businesses and even students.”

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