The Legacy Brain Drain: A Modernization Challenge Agencies Can’t Ignore

As government takes steps to modernize, cybersecurity is the obvious top priority. But with the conversation focused on cyber challenges, there’s a lot less talk about government’s second-biggest modernization challenge: Human capital.

A gap in technical talent is a broad and complex issue for the public sector. But the rapid loss of legacy talent, specifically, is an important piece of that puzzle — and one that’s under-addressed. It also presents unique risks and opportunities that agencies can’t afford to ignore.

A Looming Shortage of Legacy Technical Skills

Right now, agencies face a growing skills gap as a legacy-trained workforce retires and a new wave of IT talent enters the market. Baby Boomers who spent their careers developing and using government mainframes are leaving in large numbers, and they’re taking their institutional knowledge with them. Now, as agencies attempt to backfill these positions, they’re struggling to attract candidates from a talent pool that’s largely digital native — and lacking in the skills needed to manage legacy IT systems.

Not only is this crop trained for a different kind of technology environment; they’re also hungry to innovate and develop cutting-edge skills that will advance their tech careers. For this reason, a job working with COBOL and mainframes is a hard sell.

Competing Priorities

Despite this, the federal government continues to devote 80% of its IT budget to maintaining legacy systems. That can seem like a disproportionate spend on something fewer and fewer people know how to maintain. But because mainframes and other legacy technologies are inherent to so many critical business processes, migrating off them would be a Herculean effort — one marked by risk, disruption, and complex adoption challenges. So, it makes sense to keep them, regardless of how outmoded they may seem to the rest of the tech world.

Given this dependency, a loss of legacy skills and human capital could have dire consequences for government. A long list of potential problems includes increased downtime, security gaps, slower operations, and possibly an inability to deliver the agency’s mission all together.

So, how can agencies attract and train new talent to close the legacy skills gap?

Preserving Legacy With Modern Tools and Mindsets

We know reliance on legacy isn’t changing. Instead, what needs to change is how agencies interact with their legacy systems. This means adopting new tools that allow users to do more with existing technologies. It also means adopting a new mindset that supports updated policies and a more collaborative, resourceful approach to work.

Steps agencies can take to address the legacy skills gap:

Create Modern Capabilities Around Legacy Systems

Technologists love to solve problems, but the technology ecosystem they use to solve them is also a huge part of the draw. Agencies still need to maintain their legacy systems, but to attract talent, they must modernize the way they use them. This means adopting modern tools that interface with current systems and augment them with new capabilities. By bringing AI, automation, and low-code/no-code to their legacy operations, agencies can simplify workflows, improve service delivery, and develop applications faster with fewer resources. This allows more space for innovation and problem-solving, which makes legacy-based work more rewarding.

Capture and Transfer Institutional Knowledge

As developers retire, how will future talent know how to maintain the systems and applications they created? The first step is adopting tools for capturing and centralizing that knowledge before developers leave. Beyond that, agencies should invest in tools that can extrapolate knowledge that’s embedded in legacy data. They should also adopt modern integration tools that capture application rules and decisions as employees make them, so development is documented in real time.

Change the Rules About Remote Work

When it comes to modernizing, the technology part is relatively easy. The hard part is changing mindset. To draw next-generation talent, agencies must modernize their internal culture and policies to support flexible schedules and remote work. Now that the pandemic has normalized the “work-from-anywhere” model, agencies that insist on “in-office activity” or domicile-related limitations will only drive away talent who can find more flexible policies in the private sector.

Seek Outside Expertise

As an alternative to training new talent, there are two ways government can acquire legacy skills: One way is to outsource them. There are many consultancies that exist to help organizations maintain legacy systems, including mainframes. Another way is to leverage public-private partnerships. This involves engaging IT leaders in the private sector to lend their skills to specific government projects — from re-writing legacy apps to providing ongoing maintenance services. Both are valid options. Choosing the right approach depends on the level of risk, effort, funding, and private sector cooperation involved.

By modernizing their capabilities and culture, agencies can derive more value from their existing investments and make work more enticing to digital native talent. This will be the key to closing the legacy skills gap, improving service delivery, and ensuring continuity in mission critical legacy systems.

Boomi Can Help

To achieve the above with minimal risk, agencies should first do an honest risk assessment of both their skills and technical capabilities. From there, they can map a course of action for managing risk as they modernize and integrate their legacy systems with modern capabilities.

Boomi can help organizations mitigate the legacy skills risk with our low-code/no-code, AI-based integration platform as a service (iPaaS) which accelerates the connections between legacy and modern tools. The result is a more connected IT ecosystem with less complexity and disruption—and ultimately, lower risk.

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