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Socially responsible IT has soul

December 25, 1998
Web posted at: 8:18 a.m. EST (1318 GMT)

by Art Jahnke


(IDG) -- For 30 years, preachers at the True Light Baptist Church in this economically pained section of Atlanta have guided their flock down the path of a righteous life. Last September, Pastor Darrell Elligan decided it was time to lead it in the direction of a righteous career, one that paid a good living wage.

Unfortunately, most of those careers require the kind of computer skills that few people in his congregation possessed. So Elligan opened his doors to a nonprofit computer skills training program called CUTE (Communities Undertaking Technological Empowerment), which is funded by a local business that started training people largely to meet its own staffing needs.

For the past three months, CUTE trainers and eight eager students from the congregation have arrived every Saturday morning and set up shop in a Sunday school classroom that is hung with regalia from a local Boy Scout troop. There they struggle with lessons about DOS, RAM and Windows, wrestling with digital concepts that would test the faith of Job, all because they believe that when it comes to information technology, the more you know, the more you earn.

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Pat Whaley, a 37-year-old mother of two, is a typical CUTE student. "I think this is going to give me some very marketable skills," says Whaley, who has a secretarial job at a local high school. "If I had computer skills, it would help me move up."

For Elligan, whose community concerns have compelled him to teach courses in drug awareness and conflict resolution in the same Sunday school classroom, there is nothing incongruous about teaching RAM in the house of the Lord.

"I think in order to function in this world, you need to be well-balanced," says Elligan. "We are training people so they can go out and have careers, and so they can teach others to do the same."

Doing good

CUTE's founder, Darnell L. Washington, couldn't agree more. Washington, a Howard University graduate and cofounder of Atlanta-based Alliance Computer Consulting Inc., a networking and computer service company, started CUTE last year with a $50,000 donation from Alliance. He is now negotiating with other potential sponsors, including The Home Depot Inc. and Clark Atlanta University.

With CUTE, Washington hopes to accomplish two things: provide career skills to people who need them and provide skilled workers for businesses that need the people.

Washington doesn't imagine that graduates of his three-month-long, once-a-week training program will soon be recruited by Silicon Valley headhunters, but they may well fill some empty tech support slots in local companies like his. In fact, Alliance recently hired a graduate of the CUTE program, and Washington says he has seen many other graduates find work with other companies. Washington says that his program, as its name suggests, is about technological empowerment, about bridging the gap between technological haves and have-nots.

But he also hopes that his "technologically empowered" graduates will come away from his program with the basic skills and confidence to pursue the kind of technology education that will prepare them for demanding jobs.

Putting corporate contributions to work for socially responsible causes is hardly a new idea, but few program models have attempted to deliver such a direct benefit to skills-starved companies. Today CUTE is one of more than a dozen new community-based programs trying to do just that.

In San Francisco, 1-year-old OpNet is using contributions from corporations like MCI WorldCom and Pacific Bell to fund the teaching of Web development skills to a largely Latino and African American population from the city's harder-pressed neighborhoods and then placing graduates in jobs at young Web companies.

In Burlington, Vt., the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce consortium is asking local manufacturers what technology skills they need. By working with a program called CyberSkills/Vermont, it is organizing the IT training of employed and unemployed workers from Chittendon County using federal, foundation and corporate money.

And while the real value of programs like these, both to business and to communities, will not be measurable for years, they offer hope for many currently untrained job seekers as well as for corporations that can't find trained staff. And they offer corporations an opportunity for good press coverage, tax breaks and a genuine contribution to society.

"OpNet is the kind of program we like to support," says Zoon Nguyen, external affairs director of Pacific Bell in San Francisco. "We think it's a bridge to multimedia opportunities for low-income, at risk young people. This is our way of working with our community and showing the community that we care."

This year, a survey of large and midsize corporations conducted by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) concluded that there are about 346,000 unfilled information technology jobs in America and that the job shortage was almost certain to worsen.

Among information technology companies surveyed by the ITAA, 85 percent expect to increase staff. The survey makes it clear that most of the vacant jobs require substantially more training than what is offered in the Sunday school classroom of the True Light Baptist Church. But there are many jobs that do not, and there are many training programs, such as OpNet and CyberSkills, that offer courses in such advanced applications as databases and electronic collaboration.

"The jobs that people are whining about are the high-skilled jobs," says April Young, former president of the Council on Urban Economic Development in Washington, D.C. "These programs are not going to fill them. It's a long way from Plattsburgh to Menlo Park. But these programs will fill entry-level jobs that pay enough that the people who want to go to school to learn more about computer science can afford to do that. The other advantage of these programs is that they begin to reach into the more diverse communities, communities of racial minorities. It is something that needs to be done."

All the students who meet each Saturday morning at the True Light Baptist Church are African Americans, and most live in the surrounding "Empowerment Zone," which is one of six federally recognized disadvantaged urban communities. Of nearly 50,000 residents in the 9.7 square miles of the zone, more than 85 percent receive some kind of federal assistance.

It's an area that Washington came to know two years ago when he took on the job of refurbishing computers that had been donated by federal agencies and were on their way to public schools. Washington needed workers to rebuild the old 486s that were headed for schools in neighborhoods where people needed work. The solution was a pilot project for CUTE, in which Alliance subsidized the training of workers who would refurbish the computers.

Since then, Washington has developed a curriculum, based on that used at the Atlanta Area Technical Institute in Atlanta to teach general computer literacy to anyone who understands that computer skills are essential in today's job market. CUTE has so far trained 70 people, and Washington is hoping to partner with other corporations or schools and expand the program to other cities.

Raising the bar

In its three years of operation, CyberSkills/Vermont and its Old North End Community Technology Center (ONE CTC) have trained more than 2,000 people, many of whom have advanced in their work or found work they didn't have before. Unlike some training programs, most CyberSkills classes are open to all comers, and they carry price tags from $139 to $350.

The program functions as part of the Burlington Enterprise Community, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and intended to address the needs of Burlington's Old North End, which has more renters, unemployed people and single mothers than any neighborhood in Vermont and has applied to HUD for official designation as an Empowerment Zone.

One CTC got its start when the city of Burlington won a $3 million HUD grant and dedicated $500,000 of that money to starting a community computer center. The city asked CCTV, the local cable access television station, to help run the center, and CCTV Executive Director Lauren-Glenn Daviditian took the city up on its offer.

One CTC CyberSkills rented a small office, recruited trainers and set up teaching programs in several locations such as Boys and Girls Clubs and senior centers. Today it owns a building in the Old North End and relies on 5 volunteers, 6 full-time staff and 14 part-time teachers, who teach nine different courses. For this year and next, it depends to a large extent on a two-year, $250,000 a year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, intended to help the organization transition from a federally funded operation to a self-sustaining one. It also has received much support from local business, including Bell Atlantc Corp., and two local banks, Howard Bank and KeyBank.

"In Vermont we have a real shortage of technologically skilled people," says Melissa Hersh, director of the Lake Champlain Regional School-to-Work Collaborative, a division of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce in Burlington. "Programs like this offer a good opportunity for employers to look in different places for workers. It also works well with the welfare-to-work initiative, so you could say the planets are aligned here in a good way."

CyberSkills operates much of the time as a vendor, hiring itself out to members of the chamber as well as to members of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp., for whom it organizes courses in such things as CAD-CAM and statistical controls.

"It's a comprehensive program," says Guy Payne, workforce development coordinator at Vermont Heating and Ventilating Inc., a large mechanical contractor of heating and cooling installation, and Fab-Tech Inc., a manufacturer of corrosive fume exhaust systems for the semiconductor industry in Colchester, Vt. "They help us take manufacturing from an industry that has depended on craftsmen to one that is more based on technology. We're not going to create new jobs unless we can attract new companies, and they want to know that we have workers of the caliber they need. We are trying to raise the bar."

And while the training is raising the bar for many who are already employed, it is presenting a whole new bar to others. In every course, 25 percent of the classroom seats are reserved for people who are looking for work and whose tuition is paid by the state's Department of Employment and Training.

"The theory is, in addition to learning skills, those people may develop relationships with people in companies, who may decide to hire them later on," says Vermont/CyberSkills Managing Director Albin Voegele.

The reality, however, Voegele concedes, is that CyberSkills has so far had a hard time filling those reserved seats. "We have to work on marketing," he says. "We are still a relatively new program, and we need to get the word out."

To do that, CyberSkills/Vermont has offered special courses to community leaders and operates an information center for the local chapter of the Small Business Administration.

"What we really try to do is work with local economic development agencies to help them understand what this digital economy is all about," says Voegele. "We want them to understand what information is out there and how easy it is to communicate with people around the world or next door. We want them to understand the different facets of technology."

Leap of faith

While Burlington One CTC offers many courses, and was launched with federal funds, at the other end of the country San Francisco-based OpNet teaches just one course in multimedia skills and has relied on corporate generosity from the start.

"We've created a way to use the private sector to take young people who would not normally have a shot at a career and give them a chance," says OpNet Cofounder and Chairman E. David Ellington, who is also the president and CEO of NetNoir Inc. in San Francisco, a new media company specializing in black/urban programming. "The companies that give get skilled workers, and they get totally good press. It's a win-win-win."

The year-old program is sponsored by Oakland, Calif.'s, Local Economic Assistance Program (LEAP), the nonprofit affiliate of Community Bank of the Bay in San Francisco. The program's 1998 budget of $275,000 was contributed by several foundations and corporations, including Pacific Bell, MCI WorldCom, Levi Strauss & Co. and NationsBanc Montgomery Securities LLC as well as the Mayor's Office of Community Development.

Ellington says he hopes to expand the program, training more people and perhaps setting up shop in other cities. He says that he and Executive Director Dan Geiger are now talking with "very well-known" businesspeople in Silicon Valley.

"There is a concern about a growing income gap in the new economy," says Geiger. "Out here we call it the 'digital divide.' The number of African Americans and Latinos in technology-driven industries is very low, and we think that multimedia offers a great opportunity to start bridging the gap. You don't need a college degree, and the pay is good. It just seems like a natural. I think business is concerned about the availability of a skilled labor pool, and they are pitching in. IBM Corp. is donating laptops to us.

We've also found that in many of the smaller companies we work with the people are fairly young and community-minded. They want to have diversity in their work force. They want to do something other than work for money. They are looking for meaning."

OpNet targets 18- to 25-year-olds from disadvantaged neighborhoods. Students come from the Mission District, a Latino community where the unemployment rate is 9 percent and the average family income is $26,606, as well as from the predominantly African American Bayview Hunter's Point neighborhood. It works with over 100 community agencies that recruit and screen candidates, and the competition for placement is tough. In one recent class, 45 applicants vied for 10 slots.

Instruction itself is outsourced to the Bay Area Video Coalition, which currently provides classroom space and software instruction. In addition to his negotiations with new funding sources, Geiger is talking to the City College of San Francisco, where there may be available classroom space as well as training partners.

In the four classes that OpNet has taught so far, the organization has trained 43 students. Of those, 74 percent have been placed in internships and 40 percent have secured long-term employment, mostly at 1 of the 15 multimedia shops that have partnered with OpNet and agreed to hire OpNet graduates as interns. For those employers, OpNet offers a deal that is hard to resist. The interns receive $8 an hour, but the shops pay only $3 an hour. OpNet picks up the rest.

At Ripple Effects Inc., a producer and marketer of educational software, President and CEO Alice Ray has welcomed two OpNet grads in the first round and has had mixed results. "One still works here and has moved up to where he is supervising new interns, and the other was here for 10 months," says Ray. "The program itself is excellent, but I think many of the people who come through that program have had a set of life experiences that don't prepare them for ongoing employment. Some seem to have a worldview that goes out about 90 days. I've suggested that OpNet give them a kind of booster shot and offer some kind of long-term support."

Young has seen the same problem. "It's wise to restrain expectations," says Young. "One of the things that is becoming clear in the welfare-to-work environment is that, of the nonworking welfare population, an estimated 40 percent have long-term serious mental or physical handicaps; they are too old or too sick to stay in a job.

In the remaining approximately 60 percent there is maybe a third who have the required soft skills, that is, the ability to handle criticism, and the social skills involved. The remaining pool may have the hard skills but they don't have the daily work skills. That's one of the reasons it's important that business is involved in these programs: to make sure that they will have some advocacy in the work place. The other reason is if business is going to get the kind of workers they need, they need to make sure the curriculum is relevant."

OpNet's Geiger admits that his graduates are not accustomed to corporate culture. "There are going to be some problems with some of the people who come from what we call 'at risk' populations," says Geiger. "If there weren't, we wouldn't need to be here. One of the things we are doing is screening people carefully, and I think the longer we do this kind of thing the better we will get. We are looking for attitude and motivation. We want to be sure that companies are going to get valuable employees out of this."

Enrique Pena is just such a valuable employee. Less than a year out of high school, Pena is earning $27,000 a year as a junior Web designer at Think, a Web development company in SanFrancisco whose client list includes Hewlett-Packard Co. and DHL Airways.

"If it weren't for OpNet," says Pena, "I would not be here."

Pena first heard about OpNet from a high school counselor just a few weeks before his graduation. He looked at the brochure, sent in an application and forgot about it.

"Three weeks later I get a phone call that OpNet is starting training," says Pena. "I had like one day to decide if I was going to do it, and I figured hey, why not? It was eight hours a day, five days a week for a month, and some of it, like the HTML, was hard. It was like learning French."

When the class ended, OpNet set up Pena with a four-month internship at a youth helpline called Communities in Harmony Advocating for Learning and Kids (Chalk) in San Francisco, which hoped to build a Web site.

"It was great," says Pena. "Three other interns and I came in, and they said 'OK, you're going to make our Web site.' It was like, whoa, but it was cool and we did it."

From that internship, Pena jumped to his current job at Think, another OpNet partner. He plans to stay there and do something he would have considered impossible just one year ago: continue his education at San Francisco State College. And from San Francisco State College, it's not that far to Menlo Park.

Art Jahnke is a senior editor for CIO.

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