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Like many people, James Greene reads about his future in the newspapers. And lately, he’s been finding it not in Sydney Omarr’s astrology column but in the classifieds. Take, for example, last Sunday’s Washington Post, which filled the first 13 pages of its L section with hundreds of jobs in the computer and telecommunications industries alone. “OneSoft is experiencing explosive growth and we want YOU to be part of it,” implores one quarter-page advertisement on Page L3.
Less than a decade ago, relatively unknown start-ups such as America Online and PSINet placed easy-to-miss, thumbnail advertisements in the Post to lure programmers, engineers, and other high-tech geeks to their fledgling organizations. Now, public offerings of these companies rock the NASDAQ, and this generation’s want ads are bigger, bolder, and much harder for job-seekers to ignore. “You’ve never had a future like this before,” reads the slogan for Nextel on Page L12.
Greene’s sold. Just like many of the newcomers filling Loudoun County town houses, the D.C. resident is desperate to steer his jalopy onto the region’s widening Information Superhighway. According to Toward a New Economy: Merging Heritage With Vision in the Greater Washington Region, a September 1998 study by Potomac Knowledge Way, the information and communications sectors currently employ one in seven area workers—a payroll rivaling that of the federal government. “Unlike many of Silicon Valley’s emulators, D.C. actually has a chance to build a sustainable technology economy,” reports The Red Herring, a high-tech-news magazine.
“That’s why I chose computers—they’re not going anytime soon,” Greene says.
Unfortunately, as Greene settles into a black vinyl chair in the lobby of the D.C. Department of Employment Service’s (DOES) Naylor Road outpost, computers seem more like another ’90s motivational mantra than like something that’s going to earn him a living right away. Much like “hard work” and “grit” and “gumption,” “high tech” is a lot easier for D.C. residents to say than to get jobs from.
And Greene is hardly the only Steve Case wannabe inquiring about the way to the Information Superhighway at Naylor Road this Thursday morning. It’s a more frequently asked question than where the restrooms are. “The high-tech field is one of the most popular,” admits One Stop Career Center Acting Manager Kenneth Lillard.
Given projections such as the one in Toward a New Economy that estimates up to 35,000 unfilled jobs in the local technology sector, you’d think that the city would be holding training sessions on a schedule like Amtrak’s. By 2010, the study projects, the information and communication fields will increase by 52 percent, creating another 91,000 jobs in the Washington region. That’s why developers of NoMa, the largely industrial area north of Massachusetts Avenue NW, envision their own Silicon Valley north of Chinatown.
In order to grab some of that economic development, city officials will need more than just talk. They need to turn D.C.’s low-skill, un- and underemployed work force into one that works Windows, not washes them. And the city’s employment agencies need to take advantage of the technology already here to reach people like Greene. Too bad that a day with him makes the city’s efforts seem about as on-schedule as its Y2K preparations.
After a nearly half-hour wait, Greene hooks up with One Stop Career Center job counselor Carlton Morrison. “Everybody wants computer training,” says Morrison, who is dressed for success in black slacks, a crisply ironed denim shirt, and a yellow power tie. In order to get into a training program, Greene has to meet with a counselor to solidify his career goals. “I have to justify why I’m sending them to training,” Morrison explains.
As they walk back to Morrison’s office, Greene passes a cubicle with a framed poster that says, “Don’t Worry, It Won’t Byte.” Right from the start, though, Morrison seems to experience his own technical difficulties. For almost two minutes, he clicks and moves his mouse in eccentric circles, but his screen remains static. As Greene rattles off his scattered work history, Morrison finally reaches an epiphany: “My mouse isn’t attached!”
After graduating from Oxon Hill High School, Greene explains, he spent some time in the military until he got into a “bit of trouble” off base. Picked up by the police for an armed-robbery charge, Greene says he went on the lam until the FBI caught up with him a few years later.
Wedged between two-and-a-half years of jail time, Greene worked a variety of jobs including a few in construction and telecommunications. As Greene orally presents his curriculum vitae, Morrison sticks to his DOES forms and his “bibles,” The Best Jobs for the 1990s & Into the 21st Century and The Best Jobs for the 21st Century, both authored by Ronald L. Krannich. Though Greene repeatedly says he wants to get out of construction work, Morrison keeps steering him back, pointing out that construction is near the top of the list. “Surely you can operate a forklift?” Morrison asks at one point.
“Never did it,” Greene responds. “Totally different machinery.”
Greene then reiterates the point of his visit: “What I want is a job with computers,” he says.
“Are you talking computer software, computer applications, computer repair?” Morrison reads from another form.
“I’m not getting no younger,” Greene says. “I know computers will be here to stay. I should be able to have a steady job—give my kids a steady financial base.”
“What type of career goals do you have?”
“I just thought about pulling files, something like that….I really haven’t thought specifically about that,” Greene says.
Greene asks for the few training programs listed in a binder in the lobby. What about Executrain, he wonders. “I’m not sure if Microsoft-certified engineer is what you’re looking for,” says Morrison.
“Do you know anything about Novell?” Morrison asks.
“‘Scuse me?” Greene says.
“That may be an issue here,” Morrison notes.
D.C.’s adult students may not know quite what to look for, but the city’s high-tech training programs have hardly blossomed with the industry. A black three-ring training binder at the Petworth Employment Center contains listings for only a handful of computer training courses.
One program that might fit Greene’s profile is that of VW Associates, which specializes in training ex-offenders. “Along with the Pre-Employment Skills training program, NO TECH TO HIGH TECH provides our participants with the industry standard, state-of-the-art computer skills necessary to move them from a state of dependence to a state of independence and self-sufficiency,” reads a brochure for the program.
Even though most students in the third-floor classroom at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church seem to master the subject quite readily, the NO TECH TO HIGH TECH professor, Dr. Floyd Benson, keeps expectations low. Halfway through the six-month program, the 11 students in the afternoon computer session work on an exercise to set tabs in Corel’s WordPerfect. Maybe a better title would be “NO TECH TO LOW TECH.”
And other city-sponsored programs make an afternoon at Benson’s feel like an excursion across the Microsoft corporate campus. At the DOES offices in Petworth and at 500 C Street NW, flyers promoting a program called TekAid are taped to the information desk. Written at the top: “Priority Need!!” in cursive handwriting. The same plea appears on TekAid’s announcement in the training binder.
The TekAid program was scheduled to begin Sept. 2, but the training vendor has yet to turn on any of its computers. DOES job counselors say they were told to push the program to those seeking computer training over the past few months. TekAid President Tom Ness could not be reached for comment.
“We’ve started several ventures with people that do high-tech training. TekAid was one of them,” counters DOES Dislocated Workers Program Director Ruby Washington. “At this point we don’t have placement data [on the last class].” Washington says that until TekAid produces numbers on how many of its students in the last session got jobs, the city will hold off on the program. But that hasn’t prevented job counselors from making referrals.
And still other “computer-training” options appear to be little more than secretarial schools with a ’90s nomenclatural twist. “My thing is: Words a minute is money in your pocket,” says Fleet College President Carole Nicholson. Not exactly the attitude that made Silicon Valley famous. Nicholson adds that her course teaches not only computer training, but also career and behavioral skills—which takes a while. “Everyone has been in a training program before in the District,” she says.
Meanwhile, students lucky enough to get a spot in Fleet College’s program are happy to get even the keyboarding practice. “I wish I could take it home and put it in my bed,” says student Barbara Coe. “A mouse is a wild thing. You can make it jump and fly.”
Back at the Naylor Road center, Greene explains to Morrison that he’d prefer to start a training program after the holidays, but that he needs some income to support his wife and three kids until the end of the year. Morrison suggests a temporary job as a courier, which requires working downtown.
Greene shakes his head. “I hate going down there,” he says. “You don’t have anything else?”
Rebuffed, Morrison decides that Greene might need a resume before he begins his job search. He clicks over to his hard drive, where he reads verbatim from a sample resume.
“Are you highly motivated, focused, and goal-oriented?” Morrison asks Greene.
Greene agrees. Morrison decides to preserve that part of the sample.
“You’re able to execute your abilities without supervision?” Morrison asks.
Once again, Greene heartily agrees. Morrison decides to keep that characteristic as well.
Morrison decides that Greene needs another session before Greene enrolls in any training. “But I still want to get computer training, Mr. Morrison,” Greene says as he shakes Morrison’s hand before heading down the hallway and out the door. CP