Capitolizing on the Digital Divid
It has dynamic colleges and universities, talented minorities and a red hot high-tech environment — not to mention lots of your federal tax dollars. But can the nation’s capital lead the way in bridging the digital divide?
WASHINGTON — After an economic recession and U.S. military budget reductions forced layoffs among federal defense contractors in the early 1990s, the promise of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area momentarily fell apart for Jim Golden.
An ill-fated casualty of layoffs at a suburban Maryland outfit of the old Westinghouse Corporation, Golden — then an industrial engineer — regrouped, retrained and pursued a new path into the capital city’s emergent information technology industry.
“There’s a world of opportunity in this area,” he says.
Call it the Potomac Gold Rush, Silicon Valley East, the Netplex or the Beltway Boomtown; the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area has in recent years become one of the fastest growing high tech regions in the country.
But although Golden is positioned to prosper in a region where the demand for qualified workers outnumbers the supply, he sees too few Black and other underrepresented minority students and professionals being prepared and recruited to take advantage of the opportunities.
“In many of the jobs that I have had, I’ve often been the only Black person around,” he laments.
Yet, the area is home to a well-established Black middle class and a plethora of colleges and universities committed to educating it. A growing Hispanic population stands to profit as well if either group can get wired to the revolution.
With a number of new initiatives on the table aimed at getting the area’s minorities into the IT mix, local and national experts are watching to see if the capital city can serve as a prototype for bridging the digital divide.
Surpassing Sillicon Valley
Individuals like Golden, who are educated and skilled in IT fields are enjoying lucrative opportunities. Starting salaries for software developers, Web application developers and network administrators — indeed, high demand positions around the nation — range from $30,000 to $45,000 in the mid-Atlantic region.
Golden, who is African American and a graduate of Central State University in Ohio, is a manager at the Citigroup banking company’s electronic commerce division in northern Virginia. He attributes landing his current gig to having held a succession of computer network administration jobs after leaving Westinghouse in 1991. The jobs, he says, equipped him with the experience to move into managerial ranks and to ride the wave of the region’s information technology boom.
So fast has the region’s information technology business grown that IT employment surpassed that of the federal government’s, traditionally the largest employer in metropolitan Washington. The number of IT workers in the region is believed to have surpassed that of the IT community in Silicon Valley in California.
As a result, local employers have so struggled to keep pace with meeting the needs of the growing information economy that an estimated 20,000 IT jobs are going unfilled. Nationwide, the IT worker shortage stood at 346,000 in late 1998. African Americans are estimated to make up six percent of the nation’s IT professionals, according to a taskforce report for the National Information Technology Workforce Convocation.
“There’s another dimension to the idea of ‘digital divide,’ which is the issue of what we do to get more minorities into the IT worker pipeline,” says Marjorie Bynum, vice-president of workforce development at the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America.
Getting minorities into that pipeline goes back to the traditional task of expanding the pool of students with strong math and science skills necessary for any technical field.
Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of Northern Virginia Community College — the third largest two-year school in the nation — believes that attracting more minorities to IT fields will require an educational and marketing process that exposes young people to the industry because “no one anticipated this growth in the IT industry.”
She adds that institutions have to become more visible in low-income and minority communities to help stimulate interests.
“It’s going to take some time because this field is so new to everyone,” Wheelan says.
Opportunistic Black Colleges
The quest to stimulate minority participation in the Washington, D.C. area IT industry is taking shape at numerous campuses, proprietary schools and even a few urban community-based training institutes. Institutions are reporting increasing enrollments in a wide variety of majors, certification programs, retraining initiatives and graduate degree concentrations.
State schools such as Virginia Tech and Old Dominion University have established satellite campuses hundreds of miles from their main campus to set up shop in northern Virginia.
Dr. Nagi T. Wakim, director of the Model Institution for Excellence program at Bowie State University, says the vision for the historically Black campus, located several miles east of Washington, D.C., is to grow the school’s capacity to offer information technology degrees while boosting math and science infrastructure.
Since 1996, Bowie State has been one of six such model institutions funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. To pursue the strategy of building both science and technology offerings in tandem, the school has leveraged its status and federal funding to build computer labs and to improve the campus network for the benefit of all Bowie State students.
“We have gotten funding of more than a million dollars for our computing infrastructure,” Wakim says.
After surveying local employers in 1994, Bowie State introduced a degree program in computer technology in 1995. The degree differs from the computer science program in that it has less theory and offers more hands-on, applications-oriented knowledge. Enrollment in the program started off with 19 students in 1995 and has increased to 82 students as of fall 1999.
“We felt the pulse of industry and found that employers were looking for graduates with more hands-on experience,” Wakim says.
The addition of computer technology as a major has helped grow Bowie State’s overall undergraduate computer science and technology enrollment from 185 students in 1995 to 446 in 1999. Computer science majors have increased from 166 to 364 over the same period, according to Bowie State officials.
Wakim says he thinks it’s important that Black institutions place a higher priority on building their science and math infrastructure to attract students to math, physical and life sciences and engineering fields.
He also notes that employer demand is so high for computer professionals that it’s become extremely difficult to find faculty. He also says that getting students to consider advanced degrees in computer and engineering sciences is tougher than ever because so many people go straight to work — and earn a decent buck — after completing their undergraduate program.
“Industry is working against the goal of [attracting people to computer science for advanced degrees],” he says.
Other Black institutions in the area, some of which have gotten federal support to build their math, science and engineering infrastructures, also are experiencing higher demand for computer-related majors.
Not unexpectedly, the University of the District of Columbia has tried tailoring its programs to meet the needs of the local job market. Dr. Gail Finley, chair of the computer science department, says the university has added an applied computer science track as a four-year degree in the computer science program. The program also has provided its two-year students with a networking certification program, a popular course of study for students in community and proprietary colleges.
“We are seeing increases in demand for all our programs,” Finley says.
Dr. James Johnson, dean of the school of architecture and engineering at Howard University, says officials there are mulling over new IT programs.
Johnson says Howard’s charter as a federal land grant institution means the school is focused on a national mission rather than one tied too heavily to the direction of the local economy. But he acknowledges that IT worker shortages are part of a national issue.
“We recognize that with our national mission it’s important to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the growth in the local business community,” he says.
Once admitted to IT programs, Black and Latino students say they look to traditional support groups, such as the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, to help them get through their programs, especially at predominately White institutions.
At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., the minority engineering organizations provide a haven not solely for engineering majors, but attracts computer scientists and management information systems majors as well.
Basil Woodruff, a George Mason University senior, has actively participated in the black engineers chapter at his school because it promotes career awareness in nearby public schools and links him to potential employers around the nation.
Woodruff, who moved to the Washington area in 1989 on assignment for the Air Force, sees an abundance of local information technology job opportunities keeping him anchored in the area. He is getting a degree in systems engineering.
“I’ve got several job offers already,” he says.
Dr. Alan Merten, president of George Mason, says the job of attracting Blacks and Latinos represents a welcome challenge for the university. More so than any public university in the state of Virginia, George Mason’s science and technology programs are tied to the direction of the northern Virginia economy.
Merten, who holds both a master’s and a Ph.D. in engineering, is well-versed on issues surrounding technology leadership and minority education.
He says George Mason aggressively recruits Black and Hispanic students who are respectively 8.1 percent and 5.4 percent of the school’s enrollment. In the School of Information Technology and Engineering, Blacks are 8.2 percent and Hispanics are 5.8 percent of the undergraduate majors.
“Our goal is to increase minority enrollment,” Merten says, noting that the school is recruiting heavily in minority-rich Washington, D.C. Starting next fall, district residents are eligible to take advantage of in-state tuition rates at Maryland and Virginia public higher education institutions.
Digital Divide or Digital Opportunity?
Local business and political leaders see the dearth of qualified IT workers as a dilemma deserving national attention. The quandary also has stirred leaders to consider and adopt outreach initiatives to attract underrepresented minorities to the IT field.
Nationwide, Blacks and Hispanics form a smaller percentage of the IT workforce than their population in the general workforce. A 1998 report by the Information Technology Association of America showed that Blacks accounted for 5 percent of all computer programmers but 10 percent of the general workforce. Hispanics accounted for 4 percent of programmers but 9 percent of the general workforce.
Bynum says her association’s members — IT companies around the nation — see Black and Latino communities as underutilized pools for potential workers and entrepreneurs.
The association is launching a national summer internship program this year with the hope of providing at least 20 jobs, Bynum says.
“Our program is called the `Digital Opportunity Initiative’ because we see it as an opportunity to bridge the skills divide,” Bynum notes.
Last month, Xpedior, an international IT company specializing in electronic business software, announced an agreement with the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education to create the Silicon Valley Minority Opportunity Program. The company is seeking to attract students from historically Black colleges and universities as employees by offering them internships, workshops, scholarships and seminars on Silicon Valley culture.
“Xpedior expects to hire 1,000 new employees this year and will increasingly turn to the talent pools at minority colleges and universities,” says Mike Phillips, an Xpedior spokesman and executive.
In northern Virginia, the home to major IT giants AOL/Time Warner and UUNET, the Northern Virginia Regional Partnership — a consortium of local businesses — has helped sponsor retraining for more than 2,500 people over the past three years to attract professionals into IT jobs.
The training programs have been held at Northern Virginia Community College campuses, George Mason University and other locations in the area. Few Blacks and Hispanics have participated in the training programs, according to Pete White, the consortium’s outreach director.
“We’re trying to recruit more minorities to our program,” White says, noting that consortium officials want to see the underrepresented minorities match their representation in the local population.
Wheelan, who is on the consortium’s board, says the programs are popular on each of her college’s five campuses.
“We have waiting lists for these classes,” she says.
Big Brother’s Role
In addition to private industry initiatives, considerable policy development and experimentation around IT labor shortage issues are coming out of Washington from think tanks, advocacy organizations and most importantly, the federal government.
Big brother has begun to address IT work skills partly by linking them to a digital divide agenda.
Last month, the Clinton Administration proposed a 20 percent tax credit for up to $5,250 in annual expenses per employee for technology training. The proposal would provide the tax relief to encourage companies to provide basic computer training, workplace literacy or other basic education for employees that lack the basic skills to succeed in the workplace. The worker skills tax proposal is one of several proposed by the administration.
The Role of Black Companies
The presence of Black-owned IT companies in the region has provided the added benefit of role models for students seeking IT employment. In the past three decades, a community of Black entrepreneurs have established highly successful technology companies in and around Washington, D.C. Several of these companies rank among the largest Black-owned companies in the nation.
Dr. Robert Wright, CEO of Dimensions International Inc., says that minority participation in the growing IT business sector represents an important priority for him as a Black IT entrepreneur.
Active in northern Virginia’s higher education community, Wright and his son Russell count George Mason University among their clients. Russell Wright is a member of the school’s minority advisory committee.
This summer, Dimensions International will sponsor an internship for a Norfolk State University student who has interned at the firm for the past two summers.
The presence of minority-owned IT companies in the Washington area owes much to federal affirmative action programs. Companies like Dimensions International gained a foothold in the industry largely through their experience as federal contractors.
Since its founding in 1985, Dimensions International has established itself as an IT contractor with extensive experience of working with the Federal Aviation Administration. That association and base of experience led engineers at Dimensions International to create a commercial Web-based service, known as “Flight Explorer,” at www.flightexplorer.com. The service, which can be subscribed by anyone who has Internet access, allows a user to keep tabs on the location of domestic flights.
Wright say the Internet is affording companies to build new businesses and lessen their dependence on federal contracts. He believes the visibility generated by Web-based services will help motivate Black and Latino students to consider IT careers.
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