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Problem of Technology Gap Starts With Shortage of Skilled Teachers

May 01, 2000|Gary Chapman

President Clinton has put the "digital divide" at the top of his deck this past month, pushing the issue into headlines and editorials all over the country. But there is still a great deal of confusion, contradiction and muddled thinking in how politicians and the technology industry are talking about bringing more Americans into the "new economy."

The president convened a White House summit on the new economy in April that was attended by 125 national leaders and experts. He followed that with his national digital-divide tour. He visited both East Palo Alto, the persistent and by-now-familiar symbol of the digital divide, and a Navajo Indian reservation. Then he urged executives at an industry convention in Chicago to do something about the technology gap.

Clinton announced $2.25 billion in proposed federal programs and tax breaks to expand technology access and skills in low-income communities. A dozen or so high-tech companies pledged an additional $200 million in programs aimed at employing more minorities, women and disabled workers.

The White House has tied the issue of the digital divide to the high-tech industry's growing anxiety about the nationwide shortage of skilled technology workers. In East Palo Alto, the president held up a copy of a local newspaper's classified ads section and said there were 10,000 jobs in it that could be filled by local residents if they had the right training.

This is a predictable, if limited, approach to the problem of the digital divide. It helps focus the technology industry's attention by attempting to link the industry's No. 1 problem--the shortage of workers and the resultant high salaries for technical talent--to the employment deficits in low-income neighborhoods.

In other words, the president is trying to show an otherwise preoccupied industry that its self-interest is attached to closing the digital divide.

But both the White House and the technology industry need to grapple with some significant holes in their thinking.

Before we can start to turn out more skilled technology workers, for example, we need more people who can train those workers.

Barbara Simons, president of the Assn. for Computing Machinery, told the participants at the White House summit last month that when teachers acquire advanced technology training, they often leave teaching for higher-paying jobs in the industry itself. This was confirmed recently in a report by the Joint Venture Silicon Valley organization.

"Systems administrators can get starting salaries of $80,000 per year in the valley now," Simons said. "And many of these people have no degree in computer science." That figure is often double or more the salary of public school teachers, and there's far more money to be made after just a few years in the private sector.

The lack of qualified teachers in high-tech subjects is reaching crisis proportions in schools, from K-12 to top-tier university research programs. Some experts refer to this as the "seed corn" problem. That is, if we eat our seed corn--meaning the people who will train the future generation of technologists--we may stifle economic growth altogether.

There are many obstacles to a solution. Teachers unions, for example, have opposed salary differentials for teachers in public schools. But the most fundamental obstacle is that most schools and universities simply can't pay salaries competitive with the private sector.

This problem is compounded by the technology industry's campaign to keep the Internet a tax-free zone. If e-commerce grows as expected and remains tax-free, public revenues will decline and the prospect of improving schools and raising teacher salaries will become even more remote.

The technology industry is sending mixed signals about the kinds of workers it needs. Top-level managers consistently say they want workers with generic skills such as problem-solving, communication, ability for teamwork and independent initiative.

But the classified ads tell a different story: There, employers say they want people with specific technical skills and experience. The employment ads are a blizzard of technical acronyms and jargon that must be discouraging to young job-seekers.

Technical workers also know they are largely self-taught. Young computer experts even complain that school programs get in the way of what they need and want to know.

Judith Lambrecht, a business professor at the University of Minnesota, agrees that most formal training programs are not very helpful. "Students who just get the basics, and that's all, never really link it to real-world problems. This is what people have when they're self-taught," she said.

The best training programs get students into internships, real-world exercises and problem-solving and foster students' ability to tinker with software and hardware, she said.

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