June 20, 2011, 11:45 AM —
I’m a COBOL programmer with about 30 years of experience and have been out of work for just over two years. Is it too late for me to learn new marketable skills? If not, what should I learn?
Let me begin by asking you two questions. What do you like to do and want to learn? Second, how can you pivot your current credentials and knowledge into a new job?
Before discussing the above questions, know that COBOL is still alive and well and living in many large companies within the US and abroad. You can find these companies by looking for firms that had large COBOL programming staffs in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Many of the very large and very impressive systems that were developed at that time are still in production today and almost impossible to replace. Additionally, the older baby-boomers that built and have been maintaining these systems are retiring in higher numbers, but the systems still remain. If you can find these companies, you very possibly will find employment. On a personal note, I was a COBOL programmer once and loved it.
Now, regarding my two questions above, your answers to these questions can help you decide what to do next. The trick to quickly changing your professional direction is how effectively you can use your prior work experience to catapult you into a new role. This, of course, raises a third question, what types of applications did you develop as a COBOL programmer? For example, if you spent 30 years developing accounting related applications such as Accounts Receivable and Payable systems, you could try to pivot this experience into a Business Analysis role related to those types of systems. Based on your interest and experience, other potential non-programming positions that would keep you in a large system environment include: disaster recovery planning, capacity planning, and database management.
If you would prefer to stay technical, certainly Java and .NET come to mind, but if you take this path, understand that there will be a large learning curve because these technologies have a very different orientation than COBOL.
I was originally a COBOL programmer and eventually moved to programming in C. I had thought a programming language is a programming language and if I could do one well I could use any language well. I did eventually become a very strong C programmer, but the transition was much harder than I anticipated because of differences in variable scope, program structure, general development environment, terminology, and other related items.
As another potential technology to consider, if you have done a lot of relational database work, is learning/expanding your knowledge in database stored procedures, such as Oracle P/L SQL or other similar technology.