The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on some states’ older technology in turn putting COBOL programmers back in demand.

In late March, politicians passed the the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. Furthermore, this included a $600 weekly increase in unemployment benefits. As states attempt to quickly implement the act, claims hault the benefits by taking as long as two weeks to process. State government mainframe computers run on the 60-year-old programming language, COBOL. As residents continue to file for unemployment, the computer systems in Kansas, New Jersey, and Connecticut that rely on COBOL experience an unprecedented surge in demand.

“Not only do we need healthcare workers but given the legacy systems, we should add a page [on www.covid19.nj.gov] for COBOL computer skills because that’s what we’re dealing with,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.

The scramble to find COBOL programmers

With the CARES Act now requiring major code changes, government agencies and businesses scramble to find programmers who know how the language works. Changing COBOL code is extremely difficult and time-consuming. Moreover, modern programming languages break programs into different parts, each with a specific purpose. These programmers often weaved the code together, also referred to as spaghetti code.  Changes in this code can damage or disable many parts of the program.

“It is the largest issue with regards to implementation in the CARES program,” said Robin Roberson, executive director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. “Our mainframe is literally over 30 years old. It’s very difficult to program, it doesn’t do much. COBOL programmers are somewhat scarce.”

IBM seeks to find and train COBOL Programmers

COBOL was first introduced back in 1959. However, it is no longer a language popular among new or even experienced programmers. IBM is working to bridge the skills gap for modern programmers.

IBM sign who is seeking COBOL programmers during covid-19 outbreak

“In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, our clients are facing unprecedented circumstances,” an IBM press release says. Some states “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.”

IBM recently announced its three new initiatives to address the immediate need for those sufficient in the COBOL language:

  1. Calling all COBOL Programmers Forum: A talent portal that connects employers with available and experienced COBOL coders.
  2. COBOL Technical Forum: A tool monitored by experienced programmers that provide resources on how to manage issues, learn new techniques, and expedite solutions.
  3. Open Source COBOL Training: Open-source course that teaches COBOL to beginners and experienced professionals.

Today’s IT professionals have not been taught the outdated programming language. As a result, unemployment benefits have halted due to the archaic computer code. COVID-19 has not only shed a spotlight on COBOL but has also put experienced COBOL programmers back in demand.