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Desperate Need for COBOL Programmers During COVID-19 Underlines Importance of Workforce Planning

A man wearing glasses is sitting in front of a computer.

​Connecticut, Kansas and New Jersey are among states relying on decades-old computer systems to process an onslaught of coronavirus-related unemployment claims. Sites are crashing, and it's hard to find people familiar with the 60-year-old computer language known as COBOL—Common Business-Oriented Language—on which the systems rely. New Jersey, for one, is calling for volunteers to help resolve the issue. 

"Literally, we have systems that are 40-plus-years-old," New Jersey Gov. Murphy told CNN over the weekend. "There'll be lots of postmortems and one of them on our list will be how did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers?"

In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly said the state's Departments of Labor was in the process of modernizing from COBOL when the virus interfered, according to CNN. 

The situation points to the importance of HR professionals taking the long view of their organization's skills needs and making recruiting and hiring decisions accordingly. In 2017, Reuters was writing about the dependence of the financial sector, major corporations and parts of the federal government on COBOL and noting "if something goes wrong, few people know how to fix it."

SHRM Online has collected the following news articles about the importance of workforce planning and anticipating an organization's skills needs.  

Ancient Computer Systems Struggle to Process Unemployment Claims Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

With the economic collapse caused by the coronavirus pandemic, states are processing hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims, and some of them are doing so on very old computer systems. New Jersey, Kansas, and Connecticut are among those attempting to weather the crisis while relying on systems that run on a decades-old computer programming language known as COBOL. Invented in 1959, coders moved away from it by the '80s, but COBOL still exists in plenty of banking and governmental systems, and there's a need for those who understand it right now.
(New York Daily News)

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Practicing the Discipline of Workforce Planning]

Coronavirus Pandemic Exposes Need for Programmers of a Very Old Computer Language 

COBOL is an antiquated computer programming language that dates to 1960. Once the staple of software development across industry and government, according to cybersecurity expert Joseph Steinberg in a post on his website, by the late 1980s "it had become sufficiently obsolete that many universities did not even include it in their computer science curricula." Even though most developers are no longer using COBOL, a report from 2017 found that more than 220 billion lines of COBOL code are still in use.

Top 5 Workforce Disruptors of 2020 and How HR Can Adapt

We are living through a radical transformation in the way we work. This is not the time to sit back and wait for events to unfold. HR departments should address these workplace disruptors, engage in workforce planning and rethink traditional talent sourcing and acquisition strategies.

IT for Business: What Every Small Business Needs 

It's a digital world, and your business has to keep up. Even nontech businesses need information technology. But without a degree in computer engineering, that can seem a little overwhelming. The good news is that you don't necessarily need the absolute cutting-edge in computing to keep your business relevant. The bottom line is that your competitors are using it to be more efficient and your customers expect it to make their interactions with your business more convenient and secure. Plus, keeping your IT up to date is crucial for security purposes.


​An organization run by AI is not a futuristic concept. Such technology is already a part of many workplaces and will continue to shape the labor market and HR. Here's how employers and employees can successfully manage generative AI and other AI-powered systems.