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.