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Inside the Digital Divide: Connecting Youth to Opportunities in the New Economy

By Bob Pearlman

It was only one and a half years ago in the Fall 2000 that “Digital Divide” was a household word. The long-running expansion of the U.S. economy was then in its tenth year. Across the U.S, the technology sector faced a growing workforce gap. It was widely recognized that minorities and women could possibly fill that gap, but instead were being left behind in acquiring the technology access and skills to be successful in the new economy. Colin Powell, then head of America’s Promise, called it “Digital Apartheid” [i] .

Today, after the bust, the recession in the technology industry and in the general economy, and the September 11 terrorist attacks, few can remember the sense of urgency that the Digital Divide provoked in the policy arena. The Bush administration, led by FCC Chairman Michael Powell, is even leading an assault on the “myth” of the Digital Divide and is scrapping federal programs aimed at addressing it.

A new study by global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney and Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, however, finds that technology access is still a serious issue and a necessary precondition to solving the Digital Divide. But the study, the “2002 Workforce Study: Connecting Today’s Youth with Tomorrow’s Technology Careers”, doesn’t stop there. The Digital Divide in the Silicon Valley, the study finds, incorporates four components: a workforce gap, an educational achievement gap, an interest gap, and a technology skill and access gap. A significant finding is that providing technology equipment to the disenfranchised is not a comprehensive answer; rather, social networks that link our young people and citizens to the people, businesses, and institutions of the new economy must be expanded.

It’s Access and a Lot More

The Bush administration appears to think otherwise. Citing figures from a recent Commerce Department study, “A Nation Online”, that Internet access is improving among all ethnic groups, the administration argues that the Digital Divide will be bridged by normal commercial development and no longer requires government programs. Even some serious commentators, like Newsweek’s Robert J. Samuelson, have bought this data and argued that the divide is “spontaneously shrinking” and is not leading to “groups of technology ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ …that worsen already large economic inequalities” [ii] .

The administration and the commentators have seriously misread the data. While all ethnic groups and genders are increasing their Internet access and use, the gaps are widening:

The Commerce Department data also fails to assess the growing divide in Broadband connections, which is the real dividing line between those who use the Internet for productive employment or e-business uses and those who primarily use it as an entertainment medium. In August 2001 almost twice as many urban households were connected to the Internet via high-speed broadband Internet access (21.2 percent) as their rural counterparts (12.2 percent). [iii]

And access says nothing about the type or level of use, or the participation by different social groups in technology careers and e-commerce. A new report from the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute (TRPI), commissioned by IBM, shows that Latinos, “trail whites and other minority groups throughout the U.S. in computer ownership, Internet use and e-commerce. [iv]

To understand the Digital Divide, a much more sophisticated analysis is needed, one that looks beyond access to type and levels of use, acquisition of skills, and motivation to prepare for technology careers.

Why the Silicon Valley study was undertaken

A.T. Kearney and Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network launched the new study in 2000 at the height of the decade long expansion of the U.S. economy. A prior 1999 Workforce Study [v] found that Silicon Valley faced a significant workforce gap, costing industry $3-4 billion a year. The gap was composed of losses from unfilled positions plus additional salary premiums for workers linked to outside recruitment and commuting costs. These factors led to delayed product launches and lost sales, and significant turnover costs. In 2000, CA State Senator John Vasconcellos called “our workforce gap … the number one crisis facing Silicon Valley today”. Could a homegrown workforce fill the gap? Were local students interested in careers in the technology industry? These were the questions the 2002 Workforce Study set out to answer.

In 2002, one year into a national recession, it’s hard for most people to worry about the workforce gap. A recent headline in the San Francisco Chronicle found that “High-tech grads face slim job pickings: Employment boom has morphed into bust” (March 10, 2002). But policymakers, and the public, should be concerned that when the 2002 Workforce study data was collected in the fall of 2000, at the peak of the long-term expansion, A.T. Kearney researchers found that the workforce gap in high-tech had grown to 210,000 positions (from 160,000 in 1999), costing industry over $6 billion a year. These figures lowered to $2.3 billion this year, but the workforce gap, which cost industry close to $30 billion during the expansion years, will surely reappear in the next expansion.

The 1999 study had surveyed high school and middle school students and found that they were not interested in high-tech careers, a finding reported worldwide as the “interest gap”. The 2002 study set out to find out why, in light of the great local opportunity for young people to pursue education and careers in the technology sector.

Silicon Valley is the “Silicon Valley” because nearly 40% of its people are employed in the technology industry, defined as seven clusters including semiconductors, computers and telecommunications, bioscience, defense and aerospace, software, technology manufacturing, and professional services. No other “silicon” region, whether Austin’s “Silicon Hills”, Northern Virginia’s “Silicon Dominion”, or Boston’s “Route 128 Technology Highway”, have more than 24% of its workers in this sector.

A New Methodology on the Digital Divide

For the 2002 Workforce Study, A.T. Kearney developed a unique, innovative framework, the “Stages of Individual Technology Acclimation”, that begins with access and then tracks how an individual uses technology, develops awareness of technology careers, acquires skills, and interest which leads to employment. The stages of individual technology acclimation are: Access, Content, Usage, Awareness, Preparedness, Interest, and Employment. “The Digital Divide is not just about access to technology,” says Robert Caret, President, San Jose State University, and a Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network board member. “It’s about access to education and careers.”

The foundation of the study was a survey of 2500 8th- and 11th-grade students in Silicon Valley conducted in the Fall of 2000, supplemented by key reports from public agencies, universities, foundations, and professional associations.

Key Findings

The new student survey produced a counter-intuitive result, which upon reflection makes perfect sense. Students were surveyed to discover their level of technology use, access, and acclimation. In most circles across the country, it was widely believed that the digital divide was the difference in technology access among ethnic and class groups.

In Silicon Valley, however, the study found that all ethnic groups and classes had high levels of technology access, through the home, school, and community. This exposed a major new finding: high levels of technology access do not translate into high awareness of, or motivation, to pursue technology careers.

The 2002 Workforce Study also found that the “interest gap” persisted -- two-thirds of Silicon Valley students in grades 8 and 11 do not plan to pursue high-technology careers because such careers are perceived as being either uninteresting or intimidating. More than increased access and increased awareness is therefore needed, to engage students, motivate them, and connect them to career opportunities.

There is both a gender gap and an ethnic gap concerning interest in and awareness of technology careers. Females were only about half as likely as males (23 percent vs. 42 percent) to report wanting to pursue a high-tech career. Awareness of high-tech careers is significantly lower among Hispanic students (one-third of all students) than among their peers.

But the most significant finding in the study is that a student's social network can have a significant impact on his/her career choice. Students whose parents are both in high-tech careers are more likely to be interested in technology careers themselves. In addition, 83 percent of students rely on personal connections for career-related information and guidance.

Role of Social Networks

The standard recipe for student success has been to provide students with a traditional K-12 and college program, with its heavy emphasis on rote learning and academic papers. Others believe that such education needs to be enhanced by skills, including hard skills like technology and soft skills such as communication, collaboration, and work ethics.

But the new report from Silicon Valley suggests that even this better recipe lacks a crucial ingredient: social networks.

Even though social networks are not part of the standard recipe for student success, it should come as no surprise. Isn’t it through social networks that adults both learn and connect to education and career opportunities?

“Social networks that can bridge across geography, race and class are key to success in the new economy”, says Professor Manuel Pastor, Jr., University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied social networks in Los Angeles among Latinos. ‘Hard’ skills are essential, but it’s the connections and mentoring that provide information about what skills are necessary and a vision of how acquiring them can lead to new opportunities for all our residents”.

Networking, or acquiring a social network, is a key skill of the 21st Century. It’s how you learn, and how you connect. At the Met, a small high school in Providence, RI, kids from grade 9 on are encouraged to find answers to their research questions by telephoning “expert” adults who would know the answer and asking them. Met kids find that adults love to share their knowledge, which in turn makes them more confident to use “networking” as a learning strategy.

Kids at many new small, high schools, like the Met, learn through internships. Kids form human bonds with caring adults, who double as supervisors and mentors. These adults play a significant role in motivating their mentees for learning and connecting them to real college and career opportunities. San Diego’s High Tech High calls “adult immersion” one of its key design principles.

Minority students in a Boston regional desegregation program “noticed that white high school students got interesting summer jobs through their parents' friends, and that those experiences helped on college applications. "Networking is white people's affirmative action"”, concluded one of the graduates [vi]

The need for education to be enhanced by social networks is a given in the new field of “Behavioral Economics” [vii] , where success is linked to factors greater than monetary incentives, including the role of identity and cooperation, both of which depend upon social networks. Kids need to be linked humanly to the real world of adults in the workplace, in schools and colleges, and in the community.

Research on "informal learning" in high-performing workplaces also has significant implications for youth development. A landmark 1998 study, led by Monika Aring at the Education Development Center, showed that people learn 70% of what they know about their jobs informally, through projects, meetings, and networking. Real learning, the study finds, is both social and situated. [viii]

A traditional education is not enough. Students lack motivation for learning and also lack the human relationships to connect them to internship, college, and career learning opportunities. The recipe for student success needs a new ingredient, social networks, or expanding a student’s adult connections. The new recipe should read:

Education + Skills (Hard + Soft) + Social Networks => Student Success


Enhancing a Student’s Social Network

So how do you enhance social networks for all students, particularly those from disadvantaged communities? Obviously you are not going to change a student’s parents or relatives or community, but you can give them schools, and programs, that link them to caring adults in the new economy.

Napa New Technology High School student Stephanie Chu points to her office door at Net-Flow Internet Solutions. Before coming to Net-Flow as an intern, she didn’t know what she wanted to do in her career or what to study in college. “Now I get paid for what I like to do”, she says. Her boss, Dean, wants her to continue working with them while in college by telecommuting.

“My nickname was ‘Trouble’”, says Aiyahnna Johnson, an African-American student at Oakland Tech. “When I was accepted into the Health Academy I started to think more about school and what I wanted to do”. Her supervisor/mentor at the Eastmont Wellness Center, Sandra Williams, expects Aiyahnna to become an obstetrician or gynecologist and to return to work at the Wellness Center and become a community leader.

“After High School, that’s it, I’m out of here”, says Oscar Kegal, a Hispanic student from San Francisco’s Mission High. But after taking part in the Cisco Networking Academy and interning at M Squared, Inc., Kegal says he is going to college and will be successful. His supervisor, M Squared principal Claire McAulliffe, is impressed with the level of work that young people can do. “Maybe one day I will own my own networking company,” Oscar says.

Stephanie, Aiyahnna, and Oscar [ix] all experienced a serious internship in their field of interest and developed meaningful and lasting relationships with their supervisor/mentors. Internships, as promoted by school-to-career partnerships, industry organizations, and new small high schools, are the best strategy for developing social networks for young people.

Mentoring can also play a key role. Ron Gonzalez, Mayor, City of San Jose, and founder of the Role Model program, says that “by connecting young people to caring adult mentors and role models, we can dare students to dream and inspire them to achieve the academic success that will prepare them for better life opportunities and good careers.”

Organizations like International Telementor ( and BeAMentor ( link students with long-term mentors in the workplace by telecommunications. These telementors consult with students on their projects and advise students on their college and career plans.

The best youth programs today connect students with caring adults. Intel’s Computer Clubhouses (, based on a design developed by the Boston Museum of Science, provides middle school students with a technology-rich after-school “workplace” and provides each student with an adult mentor.

Including internship or mentor experiences is also a key feature of many successful Community Technology Center programs (see programs for both youth and working adult programs. Year Up ( is a one-year, intensive training program that provides urban, young adults 18-23, with a unique combination of technical and professional skills and a paid corporate internship. Technology Goes Home, sponsored by the Boston Digital Bridge Foundation ( and the City of Boston, joins young people and their parents in a ten-week training program leading to a computer and internet access in their home.

Another way to connect students is to help their teachers become effective networkers. Programs such as IISME (Industry Initiatives in Science and Math Education, provide teachers with 6-8 week summer internships at technology companies. The experience not only updates teacher skills and provides them with ideas for new curriculum, it also connects them with the industry contacts that can provide social networking opportunities for their kids.

Bridging the Digital Divide

The widening gap in both dial-up and broadband access, here and abroad, must be addressed. Investment is needed from both government and public-private partnerships to bring to scale programs of digital opportunity. But more than access and awareness is needed to bridge the Digital Divide in both the high-access Silicon Valley and in communities around the globe and to end what Colin Powell calls “Digital Apartheid”.

Few students today, either in the Silicon Valley or elsewhere, have the kind of learning opportunities that Stephanie, Aiyahnna, and Oscar have. Fortunately, with the publication of this new study, some Silicon Valley leaders now understand this need and are calling for scaling up those programs that enhance social networks. "The 2002 Workforce Study emphasizes that a cooperative regional effort is needed to expand the social networks that connect young people with the Silicon Valley jobs of tomorrow," said Rebecca Guerra, Vice President, Worldwide Human Resources at Riverstone Networks and a member of the Joint Venture Board of Directors. "We must ensure that young people of all backgrounds have access to accurate, reliable information on high-tech careers and have relationships with role models and other adults who can provide valuable career-related guidance."

Praveen Madan, principal at A.T. Kearney's Silicon Valley office and leader of the 2002 Workforce Study, calls for regional action: "We need to increase students' affinity for high-tech careers in order to both prevent future workforce shortages in the Valley and prepare today's youth to be full participants in the region's economic future. Simply providing access to technology - something 99 percent of the students' surveyed already say they have -- is clearly not enough. Businesses, civic leaders and educators must work to increase students' exposure to and understanding of technology professions."

Madan’s counsel for regional human and economic development speaks not only to the Silicon Valley, but to all emerging technology regions in the U.S. and around the world. It also speaks to more than the technology field. To engage the next generation of citizens and workers, businesses, civic leaders and educators need to increase students’ social networks to the workplace and the larger community.

April 8, 2002

Further information about the 2002 Workforce Study can be found at A PDF of the study can be downloaded at

Bob Pearlman is a strategy consultant for education reform. He is the former Director of Education and Workforce Development at Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network and the former President of the Autodesk Foundation. He can be reached at and This article may be reprinted in the publications of non-profit organizations with the permission of the author.

[i] “We hear much today about the "digital divide" -- the gap between those who have access to the wonders of digital technology and the Internet and those who do not. When I address this issue I use an even stronger term: digital apartheid. What is at stake is today's technology "have-nots" -- especially the young -- and whether they may find themselves marginalized for life because they lack the skills and tools to participate in our globalized, knowledge-based economy. This is true in America and in the rest of the world.”, Colin Powell, “Is the Digital Divide a Problem or an Opportunity?,” Business Week special advertising section, 2000,

[ii] Robert J. Samuelson, “Debunking the Digital Divide”, Judgment Calls column, Business Week, March 25, 2002. Also see "What digital divide?", by Sonia Arrison, C/net, March 13, 2002,

[iii] Data from Norris Dickard, “Federal Retrenchment on the Digital Divide: Potential National Impact, Benton Foundation Policy Briefs, March 18, 2002,

[iv] Latinos and Information Technology: The Promise and the Challenge, Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, April 2002,


[vi] Susan E. Eaton, "The Other Boston Busing Story," quoted by Richard Rothstein in his column, Lessons (New York Times, January 30, 2002).

[vii] See Rachel Kranton and George Akerlof, “"The Economics of Education: Some Lessons from Sociology,” July 2001,

[viii] “The Teaching Firm: Where Productive Work and Learning Converge”, Center for Workforce Development, Education Development Center (1998)

[ix] Stepahnie Chu, Aiyahnna Johnson, and Oscar Kegal are featured in the video, Powerful Learning Through School-to-Career, produced by the Bay Area School-to-Career Action Network (BaySCAN). To order a copy of the video, go to