The Digital Divide When You Don’t Have A Job

CHICAGO –  When you talk about a digital divide, you’re probably thinking of inner city kids who don’t have ready access to the Internet. But there’s another group that looks at the digital divide with a growing sense of urgency: unemployed workers. Changing Gears is  public media project looking at the reinvention of the industrial Midwest. In this story, we look at how hard it is to find a job when you don’t have the skills or access to technology.[display_podcast]

Students in the Everyday Digital Literacy class, at the Greater Auburn Gresham Community Development Corp.'s Family Net Center (Niala Boodhoo)

Darlene Williams has been out of work since 2005. During that time, she feels like she’s been left out of the digital revolution.

“My computer skills as far as navigating on the Internet since I’ve been off work have really, really fallen by the wayside,” said Williams, who used to work in human resources. Now, she realizes, everything has changed – even the way people use software like Microsoft Office.

Williams lives in Englewood, on Chicago’s South Side. She doesn’t have a home computer. That means to actually apply for jobs, Williams has to depend on outside resources like the library or where I met her, at the Family Net Center. It’s in Auburn Gresham, one of Chicago’s newest five Smart Communities. But Williams also worries that she just doesn’t have the technological savvy you need these days to land a job.

“It’s actually kind of intimidating,” said Williams. “My nieces who are eight or nine are just amazing on a computer. So when I’m sitting there, interviewing, or I’m contemplating going on an interview and I’m sitting there with 22, 23-year-olds, I’m like, “oh no!”,” she said, laughing, adding: “You don’t stand a chance.”

University of Illinois at Chicago professor Karen Mossberger said it’s just a fact these days that even the most basic work requires a level of web savvy that wasn’t the case even a few years ago.

“It’s becoming more integrated not just into high tech jobs but into all kinds of old economy jobs. Even fast food restaurants, offices, manufacturing, trucking and delivery – there are going to be some aspects of technology involved and that’s going to become even more true in the future,” said Mossberger, who teaches public administration. “People who don’t have the basic skills to use technology are at a disadvantage.”

People who don’t lack those skills are also at a disadvantage when it comes to how much money they make – especially compared with coworkers who have the same level of formal education. Mossberger’s done research that shows even among workers with a high school education, those who use the Internet at work on average, make $111 more a week. (To read more of Mossberger’s research on the digital divide, click here.)

She sees digital competency as important not just for individuals, but also for communities and ultimately, the Midwest as a whole as the entire region transitions out of “old economy” jobs that don’t use as much technology.

“I think the region has a challenge in terms of trying to fit into the digital economy – not just for individuals, but for labor markets, and the economy,” she said.


Back at the Auburn Gresham Family Net Center, Desmond Hart is using the computers to apply for work, but, as he says: “I’m not real comfortable with doing it online.”

He’s 34, and been out of a job for two years. He was a carpenter, and he’s worked as a nursing assistant.  He also went back to school to be certified to work on heating and cooling systems.

He spends hours here, almost every day, using their computers to apply for jobs because like Darlene Williams, Hart also doesn’t have home internet access. In Auburn Gresham, about 47 percent of residents have home Internet access. Compare that to 70 percent for the rest of Chicago. (Here’s a 2008 recent report on technology use throughout the City of Chicago.)

The Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp. is hoping to improve that with its new Digital Literacy course, said the organization’s technology organizer, Jimmy Prude:

“Some of the things we realize people don’t necessarily understand when they come into the everyday Digital coursework is how to maneuver through the computer, how they understand their computer system, how do they get it work for them,” he said.

Auburn Gresham is one of five Smart Communities in Chicago hoping to improve its digital divide. (Niala Boodhoo)

The class is funded by the Chicago Smart Communities program, which is getting federal stimulus money. Other states have similar initiatives, like the Connect your Community project. That’s a $25 million multistate program that’s trying to get four communities more plugged in: Detroit, Cleveland, Akron and Lorain, Ohio.

For the past six weeks, about a dozen people – including Darlene Williams – have been enrolled in first Everyday Digital Class in Auburn Gresham.

Students who qualify will receive a free laptop at the end of the program.

About half the class is made up of seniors like Billye Wilson.

“My son and my grandson often tell me: You need to get on the Information Superhighway and I say, ‘It’s going a bit too fast right now’,” said Wilson, who is 62.

Even though she’s retired, she’s still looking for work. She saw a job once for working for Commonwealth Edison at home, but it required having a computer – and some basic technology skills.

Now that she’s finished the course, Wilson says she feels more comfortable jumping on that Highway.

“It was quite intimidating, getting on the computer, as far if you pushed this button, the world is coming to an end,” she said, laughing. “Now I’m able to go to the library surf the web. Who knows, maybe soon I’ll be able to mount that big web, you know, ride on into shore.”

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