As state governments seek to fix overwhelmed unemployment benefit systems, they need programmers skilled in a language that was passé by the early 1980s.

Some states have found themselves in need of people who know a 60-year old programming language called COBOL to retrofit the antiquated government systems now struggling to process the deluge of unemployment claims brought by the coronavirus crisis.

The states of Kansas, New Jersey, and Connecticut all experienced technical meltdowns after a stunning 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week.

They might not have an easy time finding the programmers they need. There just aren’t that many people around these days who know COBOL, or Common Business-Oriented Language. Most universities stopped teaching the language back in the 1980s. COBOL is considered a relic by younger coders.

“There’s really no good reason to learn COBOL today, and there was really no good reason to learn it 20 years ago,” says UCLA computer science professor Peter Reiher. “Most students today wouldn’t have ever even heard of COBOL.”

Meanwhile, because many banks, large companies, and government agencies still use the language in their legacy systems, there’s plenty of demand for COBOL programmers. A search for “COBOL Developer” returned 568 jobs on COBOL developers make anywhere from $40 to more than $100 per hour.

Kansas governor Laura Kelley said the Kansas Department of Labor was in the process of migrating systems from COBOL to a newer language, but that the effort was postponed by the virus. New Jersey governor Phil Murphy wondered why such an old language was being used on vital state government systems, and classed it with the many weaknesses in government systems the virus has revealed.

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