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COBOL Computer Skills Find New Demand in Coronavirus Crisis

State unemployment systems rely on the decades-old programming language

An older male works with a younger male on a computer

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En español | 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.

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.

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"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But just because the technology is several decades old doesn't necessarily mean it's out of date.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.

"I tell people, it's like if you're riding a bicycle, you hop off of it, and you jump on a Harley Davidson,” Hinshaw says. “That's the type of change you will see from the COBOL mainframes 60 years ago to what it is today. It's not even comparable.”

He says his company has received 350 résumés from experienced COBOL programmers in recent years, as media coverage has started to highlight the need among government agencies.

"Because of the current crisis in New Jersey and other states with unemployment claims, our website has been hit hard with people that know COBOL and want to help,” Hinshaw says. People of “all ages are coming to us, even. We're getting the younger generations that code and are coming to us to say, ‘We want to learn COBOL.’ “

Many computer programmers — including COBOL developers — have associate or bachelor's degrees in computer science. It is possible, however, to acquire the necessary skills through online courses or “boot camps,” some of which are specifically designed to help older adults build new skills or change careers. COBOL mainframe developers make an average of $42 per hour, according to ZipRecruiter.

Connecting programmers to states

To help meet the immediate demand for assistance, IBM has set up a web page to help connect experienced programmers with the state agencies that need them. “There are also some states that are in need of additional programming skills to make changes to COBOL — a language that has been widely reported to have an estimated 220 billion lines of code being actively used today,” writes Meredith Stowell, an IBM vice president. “These changes to the code are required to take into account the new parameters for unemployment payment eligibility, in a very short timeframe."

In many cases, however, much of the mainframe work that involves COBOL programming may need to wait until after the pandemic subsides. For example, the Kansas Department of Labor was working to migrate its technology to newer software but had to postpone that process once the coronavirus emergency developed, according to Gov. Laura Kelly.

Hinshaw expects that many more employers may be looking for COBOL programmers once the coronavirus pandemic subsides to help them transition to newer software.

"You don't do that overnight,” he says. “You have to build a strategic plan to do that."

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