Promoting Economic Development
Below is a summary of key points made by participants in an online discussion hosted by the Morino Institute from November 2000 to April 2001 — with links to the full text of selected messages ("posts"). More information...
In moving the discussion of the digital divide from a focus on access to an insistence on outcomes, which social outcomes should we emphasize? Most of the participants in the online discussion agreed that economic outcomes should come first. Creating opportunities for people to get a job or start their own business is what will enable people to improve their own lives and the lives of their children.
Bob Templin of the Morino Institute elaborated: "We know that jobs offering a predictable and adequate income and benefits are the foundation for families to meet their day-to-day requirements and build for the future. We know that, with adequate employment, families are stronger, children grow up healthier and learn more. We know strong families and economic opportunity together build better neighborhoods. If there is to be a focal outcome of the digital divide discussion, economic opportunity would surely be it."
Technology, as a method of delivery and as a subject of study, has a powerful role to play as an economic development tool, both for individuals and for communities. Much of the discussion that ensued can be seen from these two perspectives.
Training and education for individuals
For many reasons, semi-skilled and blue-collar jobs are no longer widely available in low-income communities. Given the right training and education opportunities, however, community members can gain the high-tech skills that are in such demand.
NPowerNY has developed a workforce training program in part to provide these opportunities. Patterned after AmeriCorps*VISTA and the National Health Service Corps, the program focuses on teaching high-tech skills. Said Barbara Chang, NPowerNY's executive director, "The concept is to train individuals in a diverse set of [information technology] skills and place them in the nonprofit sector for a service obligation... Once the obligation is complete, they will have a set of marketable skills and can move on to the private sector or (hopefully) stay with the nonprofit sector as a career."
Mario Morino of the Morino Institute noted that Urban Ed in Washington, DC has a new nine-month program that provides low- to no-income minority youth ages 16-25 with training in computer programming. Other examples provided by Randal Pinkett of the Inner City Consulting Group include the National Urban Technology Center and Middlesex Community College, which offers a retraining program that integrates technology skills with a comprehensive soft skills curriculum.
Nick Gleason of CitySoft noted that many individuals have the capability to succeed in new economy jobs: "Digital divide initiatives should focus much more on real technical job training and placement. There are lots of folks from Roxbury, Harlem, and East Baltimore (and a lot of other places) who can and should be in the new economy." His for-profit web development firm employs underserved community members.
To some of the discussion participants, however, high-tech skills are not the only or the most important skill for individuals to acquire. As Sam Carlson of World Links noted, "We believe that simply providing technology and technology training will not result in economic opportunity. That has to be combined with more general education for a new set of 'information age vocational education.'" This education includes developing basic skills (literacy, numeracy, civics); digital literacy (word processing, spreadsheets); information-reasoning skills (how to gather, evaluate, analyze, synthesize, visualize, and communicate knowledge); and skills in problem solving and teamwork.
And, in fact, not all new economy jobs require high-tech training. Some effort should be expended on preparing individuals for what Bob Templin called "the equivalent of skilled 'blue-collar' workers in the high-tech sector" — cable laying, workstation set-up, telemarketing, administrative support, customer service, and equipment maintenance. Technology training should also be integrated into educational programs for non-technical occupations, such as allied health and child care, which are beginning to require more technical knowledge.
The discussion group noted that efforts to support economic development should consider distance learning and networking technology as a means for delivering training and education to organizations operating within the community. Some ideas mentioned in the discussion include:
Most of the participants agreed on the importance of working through organizations already trusted in the community to choose and provide training and education opportunities. Said Bob Templin:
To prepare community members for success in the workplace, education and training opportunities are just one side of the equation. The other side is ensuring that jobs are available.
Michael Margolis co-founded CitySkills in part to provide those opportunities: "We wondered why more urban adults weren't finding their way into high-growth, high-paying jobs. After some thought and research, we recognized the dire need for a national nonprofit like CitySkills to broker resources, centralize best practices, advocate for change, and catalyze the growth and impact of community-based job training efforts."
Randal Pinkett provided examples of local efforts to employ from within low-income communities. These include CitySoft, Plugged In, and Street-Level Youth Media, the latter "a desktop publishing/graphics operation [run out of their community technology center (CTC)], where youth from the community were the employees." He noted that RiverTech, a CTC in Illinois, also has an impressive operation that "doubled as a Kinko's-like operation. It was so successful, that other business owners were complaining that a nonprofit should not do so well."
The group discussed other ideas for encouraging job
creation from within low-income communities, such as:
John Middleton of the World Bank noted some examples from the international arena in which micro-businesses and income generation strengthened the fabric of the entire community. "I think of the Mothers Clubs in South Korean villages in the 1960s and 1970s that transformed village life... Much of their success was due to an entrepreneurial approach to self-sufficiency — many mothers pawned their jewelry to get the capital needed to start small businesses. Or the Grameen Bank credit groups in Bangladesh that empower very poor women with small loans to start businesses, with a repayment rate of 98 percent."
In addition, more jobs could be brought into underserved communities if the proper incentives to employers were in place. "Telemarketing and customer service centers, equipment service shops, and device maintenance facilities can function as well in low-income communities as in any suburb, provided the skill sets are available," noted Bob Templin.
Focusing on education, training, and job creation should be a primary goal of efforts in low-income communities, in no small part because those are the goals that the community members themselves identify as most important. "[Low-income individuals], as do we all, want to know: Where are the jobs, where's the money, how much better will I (my family/my community) be," said Glynis Long of Americans Communicating Electronically.
What is needed now is a united effort around shared goals and outcomes like those described in this summary. Some thoughts on the merits of establishing a digital peace corps to help make such outcomes more common are found in the next discussion thread.
A chronological list of key posts on this theme: