Is COBOL Programming a Good Long-Term Career?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there’s been a burst of news stories about a sudden need for COBOL developers. The narrative goes something like this: State governments have never migrated some of their most important databases from mainframes, and they need these highly specialized experts to help them deal with an unexpected crunch on vital services such as unemployment insurance. 

In April, for instance, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy asked for volunteers who could program in COBOL to help the state deal with a 1,600-percent increase in unemployment claims, which was stressing the state’s systems. But once the pandemic (hopefully) recedes, will developers who can work with the language continue to find themselves in such high demand? 

That’s an excellent question. For starters, it might be years before governments and large institutions (such as banks; Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, and Citi all post job openings for COBOL-related positions, according to eFinancialCareers) all modernize beyond the point where they need at least some experts who can work on these systems. At some point, however, the demand for these specialists may slacken: Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, has predicted that positions demanding COBOL skills will decline 13.6 percent over the next decade.

That being said, specializing in COBOL could translate into solid compensation, even before the COVID-19 crisis. Burning Glass places the current median salary for jobs involving COBOL skills at $90,000, which is a tad below the technology-industry average of $94,000 (according to the 2020 edition of the Dice Salary Report). For a six-decade-old language that many folks regularly declare dead, that’s not bad. 

And unlike highly lucrative positions such as machine-learning expert, COBOL-related jobs don’t demand a lot of specialized education, with 83.8 percent of the jobs asking for a bachelor’s degree (again, according to Burning Glass’s analysis). Those in the highest percentile of COBOL jobs can earn more than $115,000 per year. 

Of course, no COBOL-related job wants applicants to only have knowledge of COBOL. Here are some of the top skills that crop up alongside COBOL in these job postings.

And here are the top occupations asking for COBOL skills. As you can see, such skills represent a very tiny portion of developer and programmer jobs:

Nonetheless, it seems there are still pockets of higher demand for those skilled in COBOL. It might be an old programming language, but the current pandemic is showing that it’s vital in certain contexts. 

7 Responses to “Is COBOL Programming a Good Long-Term Career?”

  1. Joseph M. McGhee

    Took a course in Cobol during a business lull and was appalled at what I saw. Business people might feel that its great because its targeted towards their needs, but C language is better suited to business and everything else and is more powerful and easier to use. Just because COBOL has the word “business” in its acronym, does not mean its the best solution to business problems. COBOL should be allowed to die a natural death and a “no resuscitation” order should be applied.

    • C is just as outdated. I realize it’s still used and updated, but so is COBOL. If C truly were a better alternative to COBOL, don’t you think that back in the 1970s when C was invented, companies would have updated their mainframes to C? There’s a reason why COBOL is still used. It still works extremely well (other than the Y2K Bug, of course, but we’re well past that) and as a prior person wrote, if it’s not broke, then why fix it?

  2. Michael

    Thanks for this article. I always appreciate statistical breakdowns. I wonder how many of the groups looking for COBOL programmers have security clearance requirements attached? And what the compensation for those jobs are like?

  3. Sastry karra

    I started my COBOL programming in 1987, saw different programming languages come threatening COBOL aka. Client server, oops, now java.

    Whatever it is, COBOL was developed for commercial usage and FORTRAN for scientific.

    With so many core applications running on COBOL, very few CEO’s will take the risk of migrating to other languages.

    I remember someone saying “it ain’t broken until its broken”.

    In 2060, COBOL will be 109 yrs old and it won’t be a surprise to see it still being used.

  4. Marcio Medeiros

    It’s not only about COBOL it’s the whole package, what comes with it – reliable DBs, machines and so on – hence Credit Card, Insurance and Banks are their major users.

  5. Andy Ensley

    The simple answer is no. Let’s get real here. If you are working on a COBOL platform, you will be working amongst folks that have largely been arrested in their professional development for decades. And because the COBOL community is filled with these unmotivated folks, the pay for those positions is sluggish. Demand for COBOL programmers is very sporadic and the rates are not that high despite what you may read. COBOL is not difficult, one of the reasons it became popular as people without a lot of talent could actually produce work. I would expect if the rates did start to elevate significantly you would see interest from low rate offshore operations.