A helping hand across the digital divide

One of the highlights of this year's government/industry confab that the Industry Advisory Council (IAC) hosts every October in Richmond, Va., was an awards ceremony of a distinctly different sort.

The award winner was not a senior executive in industry or government. It was Isabel Hinojosa, who is a graduate of Job Corps, the Labor Department-run program that provides job practice and skills for disadvantaged youth. Isabel received one of seven scholarships, which IAC awarded for the first time to Job Corps graduates, to study information technology at college.

At the ceremony, Isabel told her story, which had the crowd of more than 500 people hanging on her every word. She grew up in a family of migrant farm workers who journeyed each year from Florida to Michigan to Texas, following the seasons and the crops that needed harvesting. Moving from school to school, often attending one school for as little as three weeks, Isabel dropped out when she was 14 years old.

Isabel read about the Job Corps program in a brochure, but her parents didn't want her to go. (The resistance reminded me of Maria Echeveste, the deputy chief of staff in the White House, who also grew up in a Mexican-American farm worker family and whose parents offered to buy her a used car if she didn't go to college.) Isabel learned to be a computer operator in the Job Corps and landed a number of computer-related jobs since then. She is now studying information systems at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, which, incidentally, is the college from which President Lyndon Johnson graduated.

In public-policy discussions of the IT revolution, we hear more and more about the "digital divide" - the gap that describes the differences between rich and poor in access to, and use of, computers and the Internet. Probably most of us who have children have seen the story from the top of the divide: Our kids start to use computers at the age of 1 or 2, can point-and-click before they can read and by the time they are teenagers, or earlier, spend many of their waking hours on the Internet.

Kids from poor homes typically don't have this kind of experience with technology. Of course, computer access is just one area in which inequality of resources is a problem. But the digital divide is troubling because so many of the good jobs of the future will require computer familiarity. Policy-makers say that a lack of computer skills constitutes a new barrier to upward mobility.

Given the affinity kids display for much of today's computer technology, however, the problem is more easily remediable than some other problems of inequality. By simply having access to computers at a young age, children can develop computer skills. And children growing up in poor neighborhoods need to see older kids going into IT-related jobs to get the idea that such jobs are open to them.

The digital divide is not a problem for only for America's poor and the country as a whole. Given the shortage of people going into IT careers, it also is a problem for the IT industry. That's why it is fantastic to see the IT community trying to address the problem.

The scholarship idea emerged as an IAC committee led by Ken Johnson of CACI Inc. was trying to organize an IAC-sponsored golf tournament. Bob Lohfeld of OAO Corp., urged the committee to make the event a fund-raiser. Leslie Barry of Computer Sciences Corp. came up with the idea of a scholarship for a Job Corps grad to study IT at college. After contacting the Job Corps, it was decided that the Job Corps would choose recipients and IAC would provide the cash.

Originally, the group thought it might raise enough money for one scholarship. But nine companies - Compaq Computer Corp., Deloitte & Touche, Hewlett-Packard Co., Microsoft Corp., Network Associates Inc., PricewaterhouseCoopers, SAP America Inc., Tivoli Systems Inc. and Federal Computer Week - teamed up to donate $7,500, and another 20 companies donated $2,000 each. Net of expenses, the FGIPC-IAC Invitational, held in June, raised $47,000 for seven Job Corps IT Educational Scholarships.

Right after the presentation, I asked Johnson how I could send a contribution. Since then, he has told me that he has received a number of similar inquiries. The folks who made this happen have done a good deed, and they deserve our thanks.

I bet there are many individuals in our community who would like the opportunity to contribute, independently of the golf tournament, to this effort to narrow the digital divide. Can we as a community set a performance goal to double the number of scholarships next year?

Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


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