COBOL has just turned 50 years old, but is still vital to countless organisations across the globe. Stephen Kelly, CEO of Micro Focus, calls on business to invest in COBOL skills during recession to avoid long-term disaster.

With 2009 proving a difficult year financially, many organisations are seeking to reduce their day-to-day costs. One of the first areas to come under scrutiny is IT.

At the same time, IT systems are crucial to business and operations, so a key priority for the year ahead is ensuring IT skills are in place to maintain and deliver even more value. Yet our recent research has shown that even towards the end of 2008, only one in seven organisations believed they had the skills in place to maintain their IT in the future, tantamount to a ticking time bomb.

It would seem that organisations are simply not devoting enough time, budget and commitment to safeguard the vital skills required to maintain and exploit one of their most crucial business assets during a recession: their IT.

Despite the continual advent of new technologies, computing languages and platforms, many of the world's most important systems - from the mainframes of global enterprises to the traffic lights at the end of your street - still run on COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language). COBOL, first developed in 1959, has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, yet demand for COBOL programmers remains high.

Research we conducted this May showed that the average person in the UK interacts with COBOL around ten times each day. Simple everyday tasks such as withdrawing money from an ATM, making a purchase online or using a mobile phone all use COBOL systems, yet only 18 per cent of people have ever heard of it.

There are over 220 billion lines of COBOL in existence, a figure that equates to around 80 per cent of the world's actively used code. In addition, around 200 times as many COBOL transactions take place each day than Google searches, according to a Computerworld article in April 2008.

In order to maintain 'business as usual', some organisations choose to replace legacy COBOL systems with more modern technologies. However, this is both risky and expensive - two traits you particularly want to avoid in the midst of a recession. Others, however, in recognising the continued viability of their existing IT, are taking a different direction and exploiting what they already have through modernisation strategies.

Of the 450 firms surveyed across Europe and the US with annual turnover of between $100 million to over $1 billion, most admitted that recession brings focus back to their so-called 'core' IT systems, with 60 per cent of CFOs in Europe and the US saying skills to modernise core IT assets are 'the most valuable in a recession'.

So it seems alarming that, as a recession takes hold, the same research revealed these firms are prioritising unrelated skills, in areas such as web 2.0 social networking technologies, over those they deem as crucial to their business.

Perhaps education is simply not providing the skills business needs? Worryingly, half as many students graduated from IT related degrees in the UK in 2008 than they did in 2001, and those graduating with core COBOL skills still remain significantly outnumbered by their web 2.0 classmates.

There are estimated to be up to 2 million COBOL programmers in the world today, and demand for these professionals is not decreasing. With many such programmers reaching retirement age and not being replaced by new graduates, there is a definite need for increased levels of COBOL training.

Training initiatives are in place and are beginning to close the gap, with organisations working directly with educational institutions to return COBOL skills to the syllabus. Our Micro Focus Academic ConnecTION programme (ACTION), for example, has seen 75 universities around the world provided with free access to the latest technology and teaching tools, and is estimated to contribute to 5,000 new COBOL-literate graduates each year.

As well as the education sector stepping up to the mark, it is essential for the government to deliver on its promises if technology is to help the country as a whole through a recession. Prime Minister Gordon Brown called technology the 'railway of the current age' when describing his £10bn spending on public works, digital technology and environmental projects aimed to create 100,000 new jobs in a Roosevelt-style New Deal, in the Observer this January.

However, while embracing new technologies is a step in the right direction, government needs to ensure it does not lose sight of the core COBOL systems that keep UK plc ticking. It needs to work closely with academia and professional training bodies to increase interest in core IT-related education, reversing the year-on-year decline in UK IT graduates and meet the demands of global companies' IT.

In times of economic turbulence, organisations are not looking to rip and replace their existing COBOL systems, but rather to glean value, make savings and mitigate risk by modernising them, and it is crucial that the right skills are in place to do this.
The recession could very well force a turning point in the IT skills crisis. With academia, government and business working together to re-focus on COBOL skills and training, the ticking of the skills time bomb could be significantly slowed, if not defused completely.