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As Unemployment Claims Spike, New Jersey Seeks COBOL Coders

Like most government jurisdictions, New Jersey runs a lot of old technology. Like the rest of the country, it is dealing with a huge surge in claims for unemployment insurance. So the governor is asking for help.

by / April 7, 2020
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy Flickr/Phil Murphy for Governor

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has put out the call: In order to handle a massive surge of applicants for unemployment insurance, his state needs more COBOL programmers.

COBOL is one of the oldest computer programming languages, officially launched in 1960 and still commonly used in legacy systems. It is not widely taught, having been supplanted by modern languages long ago, but many government agencies in the U.S. still need people who know COBOL to run old IT systems.

New Jersey’s unemployment insurance system is one of them. And like the rest of the country, where a growing number of states have ordered non-essential businesses to close, the state has seen a spike in people seeking unemployment insurance (UI). For the week that ended March 14, New Jersey had about 9,000 UI claims. The next week, that number rose more than twelvefold to about 116,000. The week after, it was 206,000.

At an April 4 press conference, Murphy called the rise in claims “unprecedented” and praised state CTO Chris Rein as well as Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo for taking on the challenge of handling so many claims on such an old system.

“Literally, we have systems that are 40 years-plus old, and there’ll be lots of post-mortems,” he said. “And one of them on our list will be how did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers?”

At another press conference two days later, Murphy said the state is already receiving messages from people who want to help.

“Someone called me the COBOL King, I'm not sure that was a compliment, but we've gotten a lot of folks who have raised their hand to say they know how to program in COBOL,” he said.

Beth Noveck, New Jersey’s chief innovation officer, said at the event that the state will be launching a website soon to solicit more volunteers for various efforts.

“I want to, first of all, thank the outpouring of volunteers, medical professionals that we've seen donations of PPE, but also technologists who have stepped up thanks to your remarks the other day, people coming out of the woodwork offering their assistance to help us, and we are using a lot of volunteer help already,” she said. “We're going to be standing up a site this week to allow us to take on volunteers of a wide variety, since there's so much. You always talk about the talent in this state. That's what we need to tap into. It's all hands on deck and we're going to have some more to talk about that this week.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained a typo misstaing the number of UI claims in New Jersey on the week of March 21. That number has been corrected.

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Ben Miller Associate Editor of GT Data and Business

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.

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