Working Papers

Promising Futures

Workforce Development and Upward Mobility in Information Technology

Ruben Diaz worked for ten years as a fast-food chef–twelve hours per day, six days per week–before finally burning out. After quitting his job, he soon lost his apartment in the South Bronx. From a homeless shelter, he was accepted into a computer technician training program at Per Scholas, a Bronx-based nonprofit. The program gave him the skills, confidence, and connections to get his first job in information technology (IT), working at a computer help desk at a nonprofit for $27,500 per year. After three years, Ruben used social networks from his job to move to a larger organization and a new job with more responsibility and pay–$40,000 per year. In four, years, with just a high school diploma, he has gone from long hours at a dead-end service job to upward mobility as a knowledge analyse in the New Economy.

Ruben crossed the Digital Divide without government support because an innovative community based organization responded to the regional labor demand and created a job training program with foundation funding. Despite decades of reform in a workforce development systems that has gradually shifted responsibility to the local and regional level, such innovative and responsive programs remain the exception, not the rule. Only some regions are able to foster such flexible and responsive workforce development institutions; and even fewer can tap into government funding to support innovation.

This study examines the potential for individuals trapped in dead-end jobs in the service economy to cross the Digital Divide into jobs in the knowledge economy. the conventional wisdom is that the lack of human capital entraps workers in dead-end jobs, unable to capitalize on the demand for high-skilled labor in an increasingly networked–and exclusive–society. Other approaches focus on the demand side, suggesting that IT itself acts to exacerbate societal divisions and ultimately income inequality, particularly in high-tech regions. IT not only drives the bifurcation of the economy into high-end knowledge analyst and low-skill service jobs but also creates a new networked system of economic organization that has few access points for those who are “switched off.” The implication is that as a globalization accelerates and IT jobs shift offshore, these patterns of bifucation, inequality, and job inaccessibility will only grow worse.