As an avalanche of unemployment claims pour into New Jersey, state administrators are looking for tech experts who can improve its old computer system which was written in COBOL, a legacy programming language, in order to expedite payments to the newly jobless.
Unemployment claims from first-timers have soared 1,600%, with an influx of over 206,000 new applicants from March 22nd to 28th, surpassing figures during any week of the Great Recession. Compounding the problem of processing claims and distributing checks is the Department of Labor’s computer mainframe.
Over the weekend, Governor Phil Murphy called on volunteer COBOL programmers to help with delays.
“Literally, we have systems that are 40-plus years old. There will be lots of postmortems and one of them on our list will be, How did we get here, where we literally needed COBOL programmers?”
COBOL, which stands for “Common Business-Oriented Language,” is a legacy computer language that was developed in 1959 and is used today in business, financial and administrative databases. According to a Reuters report, IT operators have been “scrambling” to fix COBOL databases for years, looking for qualified professionals whose numbers have thinned because the language is rarely taught to advanced computer science students.
Yet it underpins the financial system, powering a vast number of transactions for “deposit accounts, check-clearing services, card networks, ATMs, mortgage servicing, loan ledgers and other services” comprising roughly $3 trillion in daily commerce.
Folks laughed when I said there is more 200 times of COBOL transactions each day then Google searches.
COBOL is operating for a number of practical reasons in the US.
Universities stopped training because it was not—glamorous.
— Brian Roemmele (@BrianRoemmele) April 4, 2020
Brian Kerr, chief executive officer of Kava Labs, developer of the Kava blockchain, the first cross-blockchain DeFi platform, says he was shocked to discover how COBOL systems are maintained.
“We spent the early days of my company interviewing COBOL programmers at banks to understand the challenges of getting banking systems to interoperate. As a modern technology company in San Francisco, we were flabbergasted that the youngest programmer we found was 63 + years old.”
The deluge in applicants and the strain on New Jersey’s infrastructure has triggered website crashes, unresponsive web pages and clogged call lines. Although not all of the problems are related to COBOL, they point to a government system that is struggling to keep up with demand.
Despite glitches in processing unemployment benefits, Murphy delivered some good news on Monday, as the state battles the spread of coronavirus.
“The social distancing looks like it’s working. I want to thank everybody who’s staying at home. The only challenge is they’ve got to continue to stay at home. We’re far from the goal line. But if folks do that, it’s showing some sign of life.”
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