Low-income youth prepare for Internet careers
by Jacob Ward
(IDG) -- Talk to anyone who works in the Internet Economy and you'll get an earful about how tired and overworked they are. The pleasantries that begin a conversation with any venture capitalist, executive or programmer almost always include boastful statements about crammed schedules of endless meetings and late nights. They have meals with the "right" executives. They loudly squawk out deals on their cell phones in the middle of meetings. They're all very busy.
And then there's Manuel Riley. An intern at Babycenter.com in San Francisco, Riley, 23, works a 10-hour day, then drives across the Bay Bridge to the Oakland airport where he works the 6:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. shift at UPS. Weekends, he attends college classes.
Riley is part of a San Francisco program called OpNet (www.opnetwork.org), which helps 18- to 25-year-olds from low-income neighborhoods get Internet and other multimedia jobs. After a five-week training session, OpNet arranges subsidized four-month paid internships in Bay Area multimedia companies and follows up with long-term career development through ongoing training and mentoring. Founded in 1997 by Dan Geiger, an employee at the Vanguard Foundation, and NetNoir president and CEO E. David Ellington, OpNet has trained 75 students and placed 74 percent of them in internships, according to the company. Twenty-five companies, including PlanetOut, Thrive Online and Quokka Sports, have hired OpNet interns to fill full-time positions.
Set up to help move lower-income people into the Internet industry, OpNet is funded by the Local Economic Assistance Program, the nonprofit affiliate of Community Bank of the Bay, and by grants from outside organizations like the Women's Foundation, which recently donated $200,000. Staff is drawn mostly from public foundations and other fund-raising organizations. But OpNet is no social-service agency – it's designed to provide incentives to multimedia companies. "We're business-minded," says Geiger. "We know that this isn't going to work unless it works for the businesses."
OpNet subsidizes its interns' wages – an intern gets $5 an hour from OpNet and $5 from the employer. For VC-backed Internet startups, which regularly dole out millions for consultants, marketing and Web development, $5 an hour for a motivated entry-level employee is almost free labor.
And that labor comes at the perfect time. The Department of Commerce's Office of Technology Policy reported this year that 95,000 new systems analysts, computer programmers and software engineers will be needed each year in the United States. At OpNet's first graduation ceremony in May, speaker Marleen McDaniel, CEO and chairperson of Women.com, said that her company, like most Internet companies, is encountering a drought when it comes to finding qualified applicants. Women.com was 83 people behind in its staffing schedule in May.
OpNet addresses the practical side of the workplace, too. Students learn about the politics of things like programmer vs. design department disagreements. And OpNet also stays in touch with employers to mediate between employers and students; after all, supervisors may not be used to working with a diverse set of employees, and students may be unfamiliar with workplace expectations.
For the students, the change of setting can be jarring. "This classroom is a culture shock for some young people, and then after five weeks, the office can be even more of a shock," says Joe Hawkins, director of training and support for OpNet.
The organization bills itself as a "bridge across the digital divide," but it can only do so much to get students into the Internet Economy. The industry's record of retaining and promoting minority talent may be best illustrated by the racial makeup of Silicon Valley CEOs. A survey by the San Jose Mercury News last year noted that among the top 150 Silicon Valley companies, there are no Hispanic CEOs. Eight percent of the companies surveyed are led by Asian-Americans, but there were no African-American CEOs until Symantec (SYMC) 's John W. Thompson was named to the post this year.
Timmy Hoang, one of the first OpNet interns, now works at Thrive Online. He had to shout to make himself noticed. "The people were nice," he recalls. "But you have to walk in and take that job. You can't just have it for showing up."
Riley, the Babycenter intern, also encountered that dynamic. Babycenter couldn't bring Riley into the programmers' group, as he'd wished, so he ended up as a gopher for the design department. "I wanted to do Java and HTML, and I didn't get to do that," he says on his last day, looking at the building.
"I wish I could give you a Cinderella story," says Jonathan Tuttle, design director at Babycenter and Riley's supervisor. "Manuel was super. He was excited and curious and up for anything. I really wish we could have hired him."
Riley recounts his time at Babycenter without regret or disappointment, simply recalling that being in the startup environment was an invaluable experience. "It's like a language," he says. "The more you speak it, the more fluent you get.
"I would spend a day listening to the people in marketing selling things over the phone for $10,000, and I realized something: It's important to be consistent. You set your price, and you never accept less. That's how this business works," he concludes.
OpNet inspires career ambition in its students. After a presentation for the Women's Foundation, a few discuss their plans. "I want to be a technical coder," volunteers Anson Laventure, a muscular 19-year-old with bleached-blond hair. "I still need help on my Java skills," he admits. When asked if it's worth going five weeks without pay to attend classes, he shrugs. "This is something I have to do. It's important."
Shannon Cunningham, 24, aims to be a freelance designer. "I have a daughter," she explains. "I'd like to do e-commerce-related design, and, ideally, I'd like to work from home." She pauses. "I have to buy that URL," she says quietly, pointing to a splash page she designed that reads "Lion Design." Despite OpNet's sterling intentions, it's hard to imagine that Internet companies, distracted as they are by stock value, strategy and product deadlines, would make time to provide opportunities for disadvantaged youth. But those companies who have worked with OpNet seem to see the appeal. After the presentation, Geiger phones with good news.
"Babycenter just called for Manuel's number," he says. "They need some freelance work done."
Is there a homegrown solution to the IT-labor shortage?
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