As government unemployment systems struggle to process millions of new claims due to the coronavirus pandemic, the private sector is stepping in to assist states in scaling state IT systems built on COBOL, a common but arcane programming language.
This effort comes from IBM and the nonprofit consortium the Linux Foundation, which this week launched three new initiatives designed to connect COBOL programmers with states that use the language in their unemployment systems and other applications. The U.S. has seen nearly 17 million people file for unemployment in the last three weeks as the coronavirus pandemic closes non-essential businesses, and officials like New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy have publicly called for help from COBOL programmers who can scale state IT systems to meet growing traffic.
Working with the Linux Foundation’s Open Mainframe Project, IBM stood up an employment and volunteer forum and a technical forum on Thursday to match COBOL programmers with state agencies that are looking for additional help. The “Calling all COBOL Programmers” forum asks volunteers or those looking for a job to list their name, location availability and resume so that government agencies can reach out if they fit a specific need. The technical forum is available for government agencies to get “extra reassurance” on the 61-year-old programming language.
“[IBM] knew which states were going to be hotspots, and we proactively reached out to each of those states,” said Barry Baker, vice president of IBM Z Software, a mainframe platform that many states run unemployment systems on.
Baker told StateScoop that some states have had to alter their unemployment eligibility guidelines, causing them to go back into systems that may not have been touched by programmers in years. Others simply need more help to scale their systems in the face of unprecedented numbers of unemployment claims.
“Depending on how the state has been investing in the care and feeding of these core systems of theirs, each of them are coming at it with a different need or request,” Baker said. “We have a lot of states that are in decent shape that may have to scale or grow these systems.
IBM has also developed a toolkit of basic COBOL language skills for beginners and programmers looking to refresh their knowledge that’s free to download on GitHub. The information will be available as a free class on Coursera next week, Baker said.