Baby Boomer Retirements Can Create an IT ‘Brain Drain’

During the so-called “baby boom” between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s, nearly 80 million babies were born in the U.S. Representing close to a quarter of the nation’s entire population, boomers have had a massive economic, social and cultural impact for the better part of seven decades.

However, boomers are now reaching retirement age at the rate of 10,000 per day, and that is causing concern in organizations across the nation. As these workers head into retirement, they often take years of valuable institutional knowledge with them. Without a plan for transferring that knowledge and expertise to a new generation of employees, companies rightly fear the effects of a potential “brain drain.”

The effects are likely to be profound. According to research by the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, baby boomers today own more than 4 million companies and account for 31 percent of all jobs — with more than half of those considered to be leadership positions.

The IT industry will likely feel the impact of shifting demographics. In addition to exacerbating the persistent shortage of tech workers, retiring baby boomers are often the only people in the company with the skills and expertise needed to keep legacy applications and systems up and running.

Legacy Tech Still Critical

For example, many of those retiring are software engineers who developed and maintain systems running on COBOL. Developed in 1959, it remains widely used in many mainframe-based financial and business applications. By some accounts, there are about 220 billion lines of COBOL code in production today, powering systems that handle roughly $3 trillion in commerce on a daily basis.

There’s no sign these systems will go away anytime soon, either. In one recent survey of 1,100 executives and IT professionals, 92 percent predicted long-term viability for mainframes and 59 percent reported seeing increases in the volume of mainframe-powered transactions.

Surprisingly few companies are taking steps to address the coming brain drain. According to the North Carolina report, more than three-quarters of Fortune 1000 companies have not analyzed the retirement rates of their employers, and only about a third have even asked their retiring workers to provide some sort of knowledge transfer. That’s in spite of the fact that the vast majority of retiring boomers say they are willing to mentor younger coworkers, who are overwhelmingly eager to learn new skills from a mentor.

Establishing a mentoring program is great way to enable the transfer of legacy skills. Along with occasional organized meetings, organizations can use collaboration platforms, webinars, video conferences and chatrooms for information sharing. It’s also a good idea to use a document management system to capture and store any documentation, plans, models or algorithms related to legacy systems.

Time for a Change

With some legacy applications, the better option may be to bite the bullet and begin replacing or modernizing old apps. It’s not uncommon for organizations to have decades-old apps with dozens of modifications performed by numerous different programmers. This sometimes results in what developers call “software entropy” — software that has been changed so much that it becomes too complex and costly to maintain.

Replacing or modernizing software can be a tricky project for organizations without specific application development expertise. SSD Technology Partners has a highly qualified team of development experts with a track record of helping clients rewrite or replace legacy software. We also have specific expertise in porting legacy applications to the cloud.

If you’re concerned about being overly dependent on legacy applications and systems, give us a call. We can evaluate your current environment and help you develop a plan for minimizing your risk of an impending brain drain.