COBOL Developers’ Last Great Task: Transitioning Away From It

By programming-language standards, COBOL is unbelievably ancient. Launched 63 years ago, it still powers mainframes within governments and large institutions, even as many of the developers who’ve mastered it retire or die. When will COBOL finally fade away?

A new (and interesting) article in IEEE Spectrum breaks down the current state of COBOL—and concludes that an increasing number of organizations finally want to move off COBOL-powered mainframes onto other platforms. While COBOL is a very stable language, it doesn’t play well with the new technologies that power modern enterprise, including the cloud and A.I. 

For developers tasked with these transitions, it’s not just figuring out a way to port applications to new platforms; they must also account for all the workarounds designed to compensate for the aging language’s inflexibility. “Developers say, ‘I need to make a change, but I’m too busy to make the COBOL changes, so I’m not going to touch the existing COBOL program, but I’ll add three more steps outside of COBOL, with Excel spreadsheets or something else, top apply the changes,’” Sid Mohanram, senior vice president of software engineering at Verisk, told IEEE Spectrum. “So now you have this COBOL program that’s very dated, and a bunch of other things that are workarounds to get the final result.”  

According to Emsi Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, COBOL is indeed a fading skill, with open jobs expected to decline -11.5 percent over the next two years. However, there’s relatively strong demand for such skills right now, with some 18,588 open job postings over the past 12 months. 

Moreover, COBOL remains relatively well-paying: jobs that include the skill have a median annual salary of $92,421. In an unsurprising twist, some 85.7 percent of mainframe developer jobs request COBOL skills, compared to 0.7 percent of software developer/engineer jobs. Some 1.6 percent of computer programmer jobs require knowledge of the language, along with 3.6 percent of programmer/analyst positions. 

Chances are very good that many of those related positions will have to do with transitioning data and services from an older mainframe onto a more modern platform. It’s a big and messy job, but someone has to do it—and they might make quite a bit of money in the process. 

3 Responses to “COBOL Developers’ Last Great Task: Transitioning Away From It”

  1. David Aman

    I have not touched the language in over 13 years, yet I still receive nearly weekly requests form headhunters if I’m interested in uprooting myself for someone needing my old skills. Flattering as it may seem, if there is such an extreme need for those skill, then they should offer remote work and bump up the salary more then $95,000.

    • Ken dawson

      I still do COBOL at the age of 73. Even though I went back tovschool and goy my bachelor degree and learned a bunch of new stuff it’s still hard to cross over. I get throen a few crumbs now and then

  2. Well I get hits for my mainframe skills all the time with low wage for short term contract, when most can’t spell Cobol, or ran off most 20 years ago. Companies if you want the old grey haired old folks to come explain pictures, goto statements, preform statements, GDG datasets, VTAM hooks, CICS hooks, you better start offering 100 an hour wages, and have some one sitting with this person that can comprehend the business logic this program was preforming and write in something new…
    My 2 cents