Bridging a Gap for Women in IT

FRAMINGHAM (07/17/2000) - Ms. MIS Jill Rosenthal had been tending bar for seven years when she realized she was going nowhere. Because she had an interest in art, she enrolled in a program in new-media skills sponsored by the city of San Francisco. "I've always been good at math," she says. "This was a chance to use that side as well as my creativity."

As the class progressed, Rosenthal found she liked programming even better. "I liked the problem-solving involved in writing code," she says.

Rosenthal was recruited for a job as a production assistant at the webzine Salon even before she finished the program. Today, she's saving to buy a house.

Lynn Garcia tried social work, odd jobs and volunteering before learning the skills to become a Web designer at Upside Today, an online magazine.

Both women are graduates of JobLink, a program from the Bay Area Video Coalition, a nonprofit media arts center. JobLink attempts to bridge the "digital divide," the chasm created as the rapid growth of the technology economy leaves many poor and minority communities behind.

Depending on which side of the divide you're on, you may see it as a major civil-rights issue of the new century or an unacceptable waste of potential talent for the already overstressed technology job market, in which 1.3 million new jobs will be created by 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But any way you look at underemployment and untapped potential in the technical marketplace, you're looking at women.

More than half of JobLink's graduates have been women, and they've moved into careers as interactive designers, graphic artists, webmasters, site designers and HTML and Java coders. Many of these positions are more attractive to women than other technical jobs because they use technology as the tool in an endeavor that's basically artistic. Garcia, for example, who minored in art history in college, says the program's artistic element is what hooked her.

JobLink, which is free, consists of four months of intense, hands-on training:

45 hours on concepts like Internet basics, project management, design principles and Web design; 132 hours of techniques including digital imaging, HTML, text and graphics editing, digital video and audio, software tools, such as Photoshop, and JavaScript; and 103 hours of career development, from field trips to résumé writing, interview techniques and portfolio presentation. In the final phase, participants work on digital-video projects for area nonprofit organizations.

Participants say the training is rigorous. "It's one of the more challenging and difficult things I've had to do," Garcia says. "But the rewards are immense."

For example, a 39-year-old African-American woman who made less than $16,000 per year before JobLink is now a Web producer pulling down $38,000. A 27-year-old Latina who made $5,000 is now a Web developer making more than 10 times that. Some participants report that they're even being recruited by other potential employers.

So far, JobLink has trained more than 220 people. Its placement rate has reached into the high end of the 90th percentile this year. Graduates are working for more than 30 employers, ranging from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Charles Schwab & Co. to Big Zig and Planet Out Corp. JobLink succeeds where other programs fail because it targets the right people - over 25, low-income, English-speaking high-school graduates. It targets the right industry: new media. The culture is casual and favors productivity over credentials, it offers quick advancement based on results and freelance opportunities provide flexible working conditions for single parents and others who can't work full time. The program stresses real-world, project-based training. It has built relationships with employer companies, enabling JobLink to place graduates and to adapt based on client feedback, and it works with local community organizations for support services such as day care.

This year, JobLink won the best practices award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But more important, the program wins accolades from the women who have gone through the program. "I would recommend it to anyone," Rosenthal says. "It was the most intense, yet enjoyable, learning experience of my life."

A Change for Ms. MIS

We're confident that women in IT would agree that change is good. With that in mind, women's issues will share this space with the concerns of others who are underrepresented, underheard and underserved in IT. Hoping to advocate for a more diverse IT community, the new column, "DiversITy," will premiere Sept. 11.

We hope to hear from all of you.

Kathleen Melymuka is a Computerworld feature writer. Contact her at kathleen_melymuka@computerworld.com.

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