|March 26, 2001|
Divided We Fall
Companies are doing their part to get technology into the hands of young people. And for good reason: The IT workforce of tomorrow depends on it.
By Diane Rezendes Khirallah (email@example.com)
|Reporter's Notebook: Musing From East Palo Alto|
|More on the digital divide:|
Becker isn't an IT manager in a multinational company; her employer is Link Community School in Newark, N.J. And when it comes to IT, she is IT: CIO, manager, tech support, help desk, and teacher to the faculty, staff, and 120 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students at the nondenominational middle school that sits in what was once one of the most devastated areas of Newark--a city that has long struggled with poverty and its share of violence.
When Becker says she has an IT challenge, she's not overstating her case. Aside from six Apple iMacs that came from a grant, Becker characterizes the school's vintage Macs and PCs--most in various states of disrepair--as "a veritable museum." The machines are a hodgepodge of hardware from local businesses and well-intentioned individuals.
And the Internet? "I'm not sure we could even load a browser on these machines," Becker says. The school's one 56-Kbps dial-up connection is so unreliable that E-mail can take as long as a week--when it goes through at all.
Like many other schools across the country, Link is firmly ensconced on the far side of the digital divide, the gap between technology "haves" and "have nots," generally measured by access to the Internet. A study released last month by the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds 45% of American children have access to the Internet. Of these 30 million, the study doesn't distinguish between those who wait in line to log on at the library from those in homes with high-speed access. Nearly three-quarters of youngsters between ages 12 and 17 go online; under age 12, that figure drops to 29%.
It's a divide most clearly delineated by three factors: race, geography, and economic status. On the surface, children at inner-city Link meet all the descriptors that mark the divide: 99% of the students are African-American; 1% are Hispanic. Nearly 40% come from families whose gross annual income is less than $14,000, well below the current U.S. poverty level of $17,650 for a family of four. But don't feel sorry for Link. The private school where everyone is on financial assistance is proud to count doctors, attorneys, and Ph.D.s among its 1,500 alumni. Ninety-five percent of its graduates will complete high school, compared with the city norm of 50% and the statewide average of 79.3%. So far, this success hasn't been because of technology; it's been in spite of it.
Corporate IT, safely perched on the tech-rich side of the divide, sees the need to help schools such as Link. A just-released InformationWeek Research survey of 500 business and IT professionals finds 77% concerned about the divide. A full 63% of respondents say private business should take on a significant role in bridging the technology gap, yet only a third of the respondents' companies have policies or programs to bring computers into the community.
Not surprisingly, survey respondents say the chief concern of business is the continued shortage of IT workers and how it will affect the U.S. economy. Nearly 70% of survey respondents say their companies are concerned about the digital divide because they, and the U.S. economy in general, need more IT talent. Business still has a great need for tech workers, despite a growing talent pool created by recent layoffs. Short-term solutions such as increasing the number of H-1B visas have had little more than a palliative effect. To address the issue requires long-term strategy.
But the average CIO doesn't necessarily have time in a 50-or 60-hour workweek to think about long-term education strategy, says Brown University's Chris Amirault, director of the Institute for Elementary and Secondary Education. Still, to remain competitive in the global economy, he says, "the reality is that [IT executives] must think about how to create a worker class five, 10, 15 years down the road."
Many technology vendors have involved themselves in digital-divide initiatives for some time. But something's changed: Their philanthropic efforts historically have been fueled by a desire to do good in the community and to reap the benefits of tax write-offs; today, they're also fueled by economic necessity, namely educating the future IT workforce. In all, 61% of survey respondents say more computers in the classroom will help bridge the digital divide, the top initiative cited. Computers in community centers (59%) and mandatory computer competency in public schools (55%) follow closely behind.
Hewlett-Packard, for its part, wants to attract children to science and engineering and into solid technology careers, and has the digital-divide initiatives to prove it (see story, "HP Plugs In To Community"). But it's tough, says HP's Cathy Lipe, manager of pre-university education programs. "The numbers [of kids pursuing engineering] aren't growing, even though the demand is growing," Lipe says. "It's a recruiting issue that's not immediately felt, because we're losing good talent when kids in grades K to 12 aren't getting into the technology pipeline."
Photo of kids from Link by Rachelle Mozman
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