IBM will offer free COBOL training to address overloaded unemployment systems

Many systems that process unemployment claims still run on a 60-year-old programming language that relatively few coders understand.

Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images

IBM is releasing a free training course next week to teach the 60-year-old programming language COBOL to coders. It is also launching a forum where those with knowledge of the language can be matched with companies in need of help maintaining their critical systems.

The moves come in response to desperate pleas by state governors for anyone with knowledge of COBOL to volunteer their time to help keep unemployment systems functioning, a critical need as the coronavirus has resulted in an unprecedented surge in people being laid off and having to claim unemployment benefits.

Time is of the essence — Governors from New Jersey and Connecticut to Kansas have all said their systems for processing unemployment claims run on the outdated language. COBOL is fast, but was long ago supplanted by modern languages like Python and C that require far less code to perform the same tasks. Most fresh-faced programmers today simply aren't taught COBOL, so if a system breaks, or a state wants to re-engineer the application process to respond to today's higher than normal demand, they're stuck searching for older engineers willing to temporarily come out of retirement.

"Literally, we have systems that are 40-plus-years-old," New Jersey Gov. Murphy said 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?" State unemployment agencies are notoriously underfunded, which is partly to blame for their computer systems being so out of date.

The alternative — writing completely new software from scratch — would take time states don't have. The surge in layoffs and furloughs has pushed the U.S. unemployment rate to a record-breaking 13 percent, from 4.4 percent only a month ago. Economists expect it to peak somewhere around 20 percent before the pandemic declines. As the situation continues to escalate, any delays with benefits could have serious consequences for many Americans.

The situation is so bad that Congress has decided to give all unemployed workers a flat $600 extra per week in unemployment insurance payouts instead of calculating their bonus as a percentage of lost wages, as they originally planned to. Why? Because state's have said changing the reimbursement percentage in their legacy software would take an estimated five months (or longer).

More public-private collaboration — New York updated its own unemployment process yesterday in collaboration with Google so that filers no longer have to call the Department of Labor and verify their information after submitting an application. Now, instead, once an application is submitted the labor department will call filers back within 72 hours. The idea is that people will no longer have to sit by the phone until they're able to reach a representative.

IBM says next month it will expand its COBOL training material to include a series of videos on online learning platforms like Coursera. Its Talent Match portal is also being used to match programmers with companies or governmental organizations who need their help.

Read next: Drone deliveries are coming sooner than you think

The phone call is making a comeback

A ventilator made with PC parts? Maingear is on it