This article previously appeared on New American Media, May 26, 2009.
America's 42 million low-income residents will only marginally participate in a "knowledge economy" unless Internet access to job training skills is increased, according to Dr. Eileen Applebaum, director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.
At a symposium entitled "Economic Empowerment for Low-Income Workers Through Broadband Training," Applebaum joined other panelists who touted the necessity of an aggressive expansion of U.S. broadband capacity. The United States currently ranks fifteenth in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Broadband measurements assess the rate of speed with which information can be uploaded, transmitted and received. Critical services like telemedicine, for example, which utilize a system's capacity to send and receive large volumes of data, are dependent on the availability of broadband. While corporations and institutions can afford the cost of broadband systems that use fiber optics, satellite, or cable, many Americans still access the Internet through telephone dial-up services at a far lower rate of speed.
Within the digital divide -- those who have access to computers and the Internet versus those who do not -- there is a newer divide between those who use dial-up and those who have broadband access.
"Speed matters," said Debbie Goldman, telecommunications policy director for the Communications Workers of America. CWA, a symposium co-sponsor on May 18 with the Alliance for Public Technology and the Alliance for Digital Equality, has in fact christened its annual U.S. survey of states' broadband capacities as "Speed Matters." In 2008, Rhode Island retained its number one download speed ranking; North Dakota, Alaska, and Puerto Rico brought up the rear at 50th, 51st, and 52nd, respectively.
Affordability is a key factor of broadband access. Though women, minorities, and immigrants comprise a significant percentage of the low-income cohort, in reality, every ethnic demographic is represented and consequently affected by the cost of broadband.
The implications for the future of America's workforce are bracing, particularly given the current state of the U.S. economy where high rates of job loss and financial insecurity are fueling increased competition for jobs. But even in the long term, the perception that the knowledge economy will be limited to employment opportunities for those with highly technical training, like engineers, physicists, and computer programmers, underestimates the impact that evolving technologies will have on the world of work, Applebaum said. In fact, "the knowledge economy really extends to every kind of job there is," she explained.
Technology can improve the quality of jobs, but it also changes how tasks are executed. As the implementation of technology ripples through the global economy, not only are new skills needed, but workers will be called on to be more adept at problem-solving tasks and to be better trained to provide enhanced customer service.
The Internet can be a phenomenal tool to acquire job training skills, but using dial-up "inhibits the richness of the experience," said Applebaum, because educational curricula may include interactive video links with teachers, or the need to download photographs, charts, or other materials. These features are particularly critical as "one-half of all Americans do not possess the literacy skills to participate in the knowledge economy."
For panelist C. Vanessa Spinner, special assistant to the provost for Community College Expansion and Workforce Development at the University of the District of Columbia, the city's double-digit unemployment stems from several factors, but tends to skew along lines of poverty and race. "We have a technology divide that is unbelievable," she said. In the more affluent part the nation's capitol, 37 percent of the populace has bachelor's degrees and access to broadband and Wi-Fi, she said, while 37 percent of the poorer and predominantly minority population is illiterate with few Internet options available.
While illiteracy looms as a fundamental impediment to success in job training, low-income adult job seekers, whether rural or urban, and regardless of their ethnic background, often face a combination of challenges that makes it difficult for them to participate in traditional job training programs.
Christopher Gaston, legislative director for Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said it was "a different world" when the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 was enacted. Among other things, the act established job training centers across the country, but, "for the most part," said Gaston, "they're open 9 to 5... It really doesn't work for the single mother trying to improve her job skills." Gaston said the key element of H.R. 145, a bill Rep. Holt introduced in January to amend the act, was "to include workforce investment programs on the Internet." The bill calls for the appropriation of funds to enable states to develop strategies to improve Internet job training capacities. It also would designate funds for a grant to a postsecondary institution in each state for research and recommendations on best practices that could be implemented.
"Twenty-one states are using some form of Internet training," said Heather McKay, director of the Sloan Center on Innovative Training and Workforce Development at Rutgers. However, like Applebaum, McKay said the barriers to low-income individuals participating in job training programs can be daunting. The lack of adequate transportation to training centers, the cost of transportation, the need to find and afford child care or elder care are typical obstacles. Internet job training is "really a viable alternative," said McKay, because those with low-incomes can "fit training into the complex lives they live every day.