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With unemployment numbers climbing at a shocking rate during the coronavirus pandemic, many state labor departments have struggled to keep up with the rising numbers of applications for benefits. The challenge to meet this demand has revealed one skill set these agencies are seeking now that may become even more valuable once the economic recovery begins: COBOL programming.
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COBOL, an acronym for “common business-oriented language,” is the computer language behind many key digital administrative and financial databases. Even though COBOL itself is roughly 60 years old, it is still used to process as much as $3 trillion worth of transactions per day, according to Reuters.
Many of those transactions involve unemployment benefits, and some state government agencies now find themselves in need of programmers who can help make their computer systems that use COBOL work better with newer technologies and devices — such as smartphones — that people are using to apply for unemployment benefits. Kansas, Connecticut and New Jersey are among the many states that recently have cited older computer technologies as one of the factors that have hindered their unemployment agencies.
"Not only do we need health care workers, but given the legacy systems we should add a page for [COBOL] computer skills, because that's what we're dealing with,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said in a news briefing this month. “Literally, we have systems that are 40-plus years old."
Old doesn't mean obsolete
But just because the technology is several decades old doesn't necessarily mean it's out of date. Because developers have continuously improved COBOL, many companies and government agencies opt to stick with it rather than switch over to newer options, according to Bill Hinshaw, founder and CEO of Cobol Cowboys, a company that connects experienced COBOL programmers with employers.