The jobless traverse the digital divide

January 17, 2011

By Niala Boodhoo

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(Changing Gears/Niala Boodhoo)
(Changing Gears/Niala Boodhoo)

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.  

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

WILLIAMS: My computer skills as far as navigating on the Internet since I’ve been off work have really really fallen by the wayside.

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 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.

DARLENE WILLIAMS: It’s actually kind of intimidating! I find that my nieces 8 or 9 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!'. You don’t stand a chance.

MOSSBERGER: We know even the kiosks at Target, places like that, low skilled jobs even, require applying online or in a kiosk.

Karen Mossberger is a public administration professor at University of Illinois at Chicago.

MOSSBERGER: People who don’t have the basic skills to use technology are at a disadvantage for applying for jobs.

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.

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.

MOSSBERGER: I think the region has a challenge in terms of trying to fit into the digital economy.

HART: I’m not real comfortable with doing it online. There a lot of things that stop you from getting through sometimes.

Desmond Hart has also been using the Auburn Gresham Family Net Center to hunt for work. 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.

The Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp. is hoping to improve that with its new Digital Literacy course. Jimmy Prude is its technology organizer.

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

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.

WILSON: Oh, yes. 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.'

Wilson’s 62, and even though she’s retired, she’s still looking for work. She saw a job once for working for ComEd at home, but it required having a home computer – and some basic technology skills.

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

WILSON: It was quite intimidating, getting on the computer, as far if you pushed this button, the world is coming to an end. It was quite intimidating. But I’m finding it very enjoyable. 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.


Changing Gears is a public media project looking at the reinvention of the industrial Midwest.

 A correction has been made to this story.

Correction: An earlier version of this transcript misspelled the Englewood and Auburn-Gresham neighborhoods.