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Connecting Inner-City Residents to High-Tech Future

Employment: Operation Hope program will offer subsidized courses to help low-income students get jobs in the 'new economy.'

November 17, 2000|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While hundreds of thousands of technology-related jobs go unfilled in today's economy, many residents of low-income neighborhoods grind away in minimum-wage jobs with little chance of upward mobility.

Today, the nonprofit Operation Hope joins a growing number of organizations around the country hoping to link demand with supply. The organization is announcing its "inner-city partnership for 'new-economy' jobs," which will bring subsidized UCLA Extension and distance learning courses to Operation Hope facilities in South Los Angeles, Watts and Maywood.

The program will bring the mostly minority participants closer to a job market teeming with higher-paying jobs. But it goes beyond the basics of sitting tech-challenged people in front of machines and teaching them to click and drag.

Operation Hope will require life-skills training, credit counseling and a course in corporate culture. Waiting on the other end are jobs.

Operation Hope founder John Bryant said his organization promises to place all graduates in $12-an-hour-minimum positions. Wells Fargo Bank, which helped craft the program, has agreed to consider graduates for employment.

Operation Hope, which provides financial education and helps residents get home mortgages and business loans, opened its first cyber cafe in the spring. But Bryant soon realized that granting access to computers was not enough, and the training program was born.

"Today there are only two irreversible assets: information and education," he said. "No one can take them away from you. Those are the trading cards of the new economy."

The program will take six months to two years to complete. Students will get college credit for the UCLA courses and, if they complete all four, a certificate in basic information technology. Online courses offered through distance-learning company Smartforce.com can earn students industry certification of hardware and software expertise.

The number of people to be served is small--130 in the first two years. But digital divide experts across the country say the program--novel for Los Angeles--has the ingredients for success.

The digital divide is often bandied about as a problem to be solved simply by getting people online, but the realities are more complex. The divide is more a factor of income than race or ethnicity, although those factors come into play, said Donna L. Hoffman, professor of management at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management.

In-depth education is crucial if technology novices are to avoid getting stuck with bottom-rung computer jobs and "a lifetime of carpal tunnel syndrome," she said.

"It's so much more complicated than, 'If we just give minorities computers and . . . train them, they can get jobs,' " she said. "They can, but what kind of jobs? Will we be creating new work force ghettos of data-entry people who are not skilled for any other kind of job?"

Programs like Operation Hope's are "steps in the right direction," she said, because they guide participants into jobs in which advancement is possible.

Teaching students how to function in a corporate environment is also key, said Anthony Wilhelm, program director of the Washington-based Digital Divide Network.

"More nonprofits are getting involved in work force [technology] training, but more are needed and we need to start learning from what's working," said Wilhelm, who points to the Bay Area Video Coalition's JobLink program as a national model.

The first UCLA Extension course is underway at the cafe on South La Brea Avenue and Rodeo Road, and in January, an expanded program is scheduled to begin there and at cafes under construction in Watts and Maywood.

The foray into the minority communities is significant for UCLA Extension, which has offered sporadic courses--although none in computer training--in Pico Union, Lynwood and Compton that were discontinued when funding ran out, said UCLA Extension Dean Robert Lapiner.

"The idea of bringing our program to Operation Hope and [helping] members of a disadvantaged community to . . . empower themselves in the knowledge economy speaks exactly to what we believe we're here for," he said.

The 12-week UCLA courses, normally $495, will be available to students for $95, a cost written down by both UCLA and Wells Fargo. Smartforce.com is providing up to 4,500 scholarships for online computer certification programs through its foundation. Pacific Bell is also contributing, and the cafes are being funded in part by a federal grant.

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