Workforce Literacy in an Information Age
First Monday

Workforce Literacy in an Information Age: Policy Recommendations for Developing an Equitable High-Tech Skills Workforce

A new relationship between educational institutions and companies needs to be formed, by bringing students into small and medium enterprise in an effort to prepare students with information technology skills while simultaneously providing companies with high-tech workers. Currently, more than one million information technology openings will be available in the year 2000 in companies with 50 to 99 employees and it is estimated that more than 800,000 positions will remain unfilled. By envisioning a new relationship between schools and smaller companies, a new workforce literacy program can serve to not only alleviate the current IT shortage but to also provide equal job opportunity for disadvantaged and traditionally disenfranchised students.


Overview of IT Needs in the United States
Equity of Opportunity in the United States
Potential for Bridging the Gap
What Employers Are Seeking from Graduates
Strategies to Bridge the IT Chasm: School-to-Career

Overview of IT Needs in the United States

On April 10, 2000, the Information Technology Association of America released a new survey, Bridging the Gap: Information Technology Skills for a New Millennium. According to ITAA, American companies will attempt to fill 1.6 million new information technology (IT) positions in the year 2000 alone [1]. Of these 1.6 million jobs, seventy percent will be available in companies with just 50 to 99 employees. Moreover, an estimated 843,328 positions will go unfilled equivalent to an average of 1 position in every 12 of the 10 million plus IT industry total. Yet, this finding does not represent new needs but reflects a disturbing trend as previously revealed in the ITAA's Help Wanted series. According to Help Wanted, 346,000 IT positions went unfilled in 1999 as well as 190,000 in 1998 [2]. With the number of university students studying computer science related fields decreasing, the United States is in the midst of a potential information technology crisis. This fact is further supported by the U. S. Department of Labor's recent solicitation for grant application (SGA) for H-1B Technical Skill Training Grants (i.e., Employment and Training Administration agency). As the SGA proclaims, "[t]he grants have the goal of raising the skill levels of domestic workers so that they can fill high skill jobs which are presently being filled by temporary workers being admitted to the United States" [3].

Equity of Opportunity in the United States

At the same time as high-tech positions remain unfilled, a large number of underserved young people remain without significant employment opportunities. To illustrate, more than 15 million 16 to 24 year olds remain out of school with seventy percent of them possessing only have a high school diploma [4]. Of these 15 million, 3.9 million school age students were not enrolled in school and had not completed high school in 1998, equivalent to a drop out rate of approximately 12 percent [5]. Without a high school diploma, these individuals are severely disadvantaged (e.g., in 1998, college graduates earned $821 dollars weekly compared to $479 for those with a high school diploma). In 1997, the average salary for an individual with a bachelor's degree was $40,478 as compared to $22,895 with a high school diploma [6]. In fact, individuals with a high school diploma, earn less today than they did twenty years ago while those with a higher education credential earn more. This reality, a result of a shift in the economy from manufacturing to information and services, presents a problem for young people without a college education. Many of those with limited educational attainment are disproportionately from minority groups (e.g., Hispanics, African American, & children with disabilities).

Individuals of Hispanic Origin

Dropout rates are significantly higher for individuals of Hispanic origin as illustrated by the fact that only 55 percent have graduated from high school [7]. More over, 29 percent have less than an eighth grade education and nearly eight percent have less than a fifth grade education [8]. Only 11 percent of Hispanics were college graduates in 1997 [9]. Consequently, the per capita income of working Hispanic families is little more than $11,000 or half of that for Whites [10]. More than three times as many Hispanics (26 percent) are poor than non-Hispanic Whites (8 percent), and poverty rates among Latino children are disproportionately high: one-third are poor, compared to about one in ten non-Hispanic White children [11]. These realities will only be exacerbated over the next century due to the fact that the population of the United States is changing rapidly. According to the United States Census Bureau, by 2050, people of Hispanic origin will comprise nearly one quarter of all citizens.

African Americans

According to the U. S. Census Bureau, approximately one-quarter of African-Americans over the age of 18 have less than a high school diploma and nearly fourteen percent of African-American 16 to 24 year olds were drop outs in 1998. Although unemployment among teenagers has decreased for young African-Americans, more than 25 percent of teenagers remain unemployed. These factors contribute to a disproportionate level of poverty. To illustrate, more than 25 percent of African-American households live in poverty as compared with 9 percent of non-Hispanic whites [12]. In general, African-Americans earn 76 cents to every $1 earned by a white person.

Children with Disabilities

Those with a disability are twice as likely than individuals with no disability to drop out of high school. Yet, education is not an employment guarantee for those struggling with disabilities. For example, 52 percent of those with a disability who have earned a college degree are employed [13]. Moreover, only 31.2 percent of individuals with a disability who have earned a high school diploma are employed and less than 18 percent of those who dropped out have a job. These statistics reveal an underutilized workforce. Seventy-five percent of individuals with a disability who want to work are currently unemployed.

Potential for Bridging the Gap

Clearly, there is a great opportunity present under these conditions to improve school-to-career opportunities for these high-risk youths in industries that utilize technology. According to the U. S. Department of Labor, by 2006, approximately half of all positions will require IT skills [14]. Information technology skills can offer those with only a high school diploma economic equality. In the high-tech arena, positions pay 78 percent more than the average private-sector wage (i.e., $53,000 compared to $30,000) [15]. Moreover, these opportunities for valuable skills may contribute to keeping young people in school. With a changing United States population in the next five decades, where minority groups will comprise nearly 50 percent of the population, we must strive to address employment inequities now to resolve the issue prior to a serious economic crisis.

What Employers Are Seeking from Graduates

A school-to-career program that focuses on providing high-risk students with information technology training can not only resolve an equity issue but also contribute to preparing domestic students for IT openings in industry. More over, it appears that employers would prefer a quality school-to-career program. For example, according to the ITAA Bridging the Gap survey [16], more than 80 percent of IT managers perceive on-the-job training as very effective or effective as compared with 40 percent who responded that pre-hire training quality as high. This school-to-career relationship would also benefit the student. According to an Educational Testing Service analysis, students who worked in high school were significantly more likely to be employed after graduation as well as earn more monthly income (i.e., 9 percent more men were employed earning $350 dollars more on average while 21 percent more women were working earning $250 more on average) [17].

Most IT managers are seeking employees with the following skills: good knowledge base (62 percent of managers); hands-on experience (47 percent); and non-technical skills such as good communication, problem-solving, and analytical skills, along with flexibility, and the ability to learn quickly (33 percent). In addition, half of the managers surveyed ranked certification by a vendor as important or very important. Desired skills rated highest for technical support included: troubleshooting (97 percent); customer service and facilitation (91 percent); installation of hardware/software and configuration upgrades (82 percent); and systems operations, monitoring, maintenance (67 percent).

Strategies to Bridge the IT Chasm: School-to-Career

Considering the significant need in small to medium enterprise (SME) for high-tech workers, a policy should serve to match high-risk students with SMEs in desire of school-to-career interns. This process of strategic matching would serve several functions:

  • Provide students with high-tech skills as well as introducing them to workplace norms and practices;
  • Increase career opportunities for these students, and;
  • Reduce the amount of time and money spent on training and human resource in SMEs.

Specifically, a school-to-career policy should serve to:

  • Focus on the priority high need states such as those in the Midwest and the West (e.g., according to the ITAA report, thirty-five percent of IT needs are centered in the Midwest while 28 percent of forecasted need remain in the Western states.)

  • Create a centralized school-to-work portal to facilitate connecting schools, students, and SMEs in need of high-tech workers;

  • Develop a problem-based learning curriculum for a variety of industries that to improve each student's workplace literacy while ensuring the development of relevant high-tech skills;

  • Develop an Electronic Performance Support System to enhance the quality of educational opportunity and improve the speed of learning workplace skills, and;

  • Develop a vendor credential curriculum to prepare students for certificate examinations.


A new vision for school-to-work can operate to simultaneously bridge the opportunity gap while ensuring that SME companies have a sufficient number of trained workers. Furthermore, such a program can serve to provide all students with relevant apprenticeship opportunities important for career development. Perceptions of school-to-career need to change and encompass opportunities for all.

About the Author

Joseph Slowinski is an educational technology policy analyst, teacher educator, and researcher. In addition to substantive expertise in instructional technology and policy, the author is a regional expert specializing in the study of post-communist education. He currently serves on the editorial review board of the new journal Information Technology, Education, & Society


1. Information Technology Association of America, 2000. Bridging the Gap: Information Technology Skills for a New Millennium. Arlington, Va.: Information Technology Association of America.

2. Information Technology Association of America, 1998. Help Wanted 2: A Call for Collaborative Action for the New Millennium. Arlington, Va.: Information Technology Association of America, at:

3. U. S. Department of Labor, at

4. U. S. Department of Labor, 1999. Future Work: Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Department of Labor, at

5. National Center for Educational Statistics, 1999. Dropout rates in the United States: 1998. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Department of Education, at

6. U. S. Census Bureau, 1998. Educational Attainment in the United States. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Census Bureau, at

7. U. S. Census Bureau, 1997. Current Population Reports, 1997. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Census Bureau.

8. U. S. Census Bureau, 1999. Money Income in the United States: 1998 Data Sets. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Census Bureau.

9. U. S. Department of Labor, 1999. Future Work,

10. U. S. Census Bureau, 1999. Money Income in the United States: 1998 Data Sets. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Census Bureau.

11. Statement of Paul Yzaguirre, NCLR President on the Hispanic Census Report. NCLR News Release. 8 March 2000.

12. U. S. Census Bureau, 1999. Current Population Survey. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Census Bureau, at:

13. U. S. Department of Labor, 1999. Future Work,

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. This study is composed of interviews with 200 IT companies and 500 non-IT companies, representing one out every 70 IT companies and one out of every 600 non-IT companies of this size in the U. S.

17. Education Testing Service, 1999. "Learn More, Earn More?" ETS Policy Notes, volume 9, number 2, at:

18. Electronic Performance System Support (EPSS) attempts to accomplish three tasks: allow process simplification; provide performance information, and; enable decision-making support. Through these tasks, an individual will be able to accomplish activities in less time, perform with fewer errors, perform with improved performance, and accomplish a profession role with less training or external support.

Editorial history

Paper received 18 May 2000; accepted 5 June 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Workforce Literacy in an Information Age: Policy Recommendations for Developing an Equitable High-Tech Skills Workforce by Joseph Slowinski
First Monday, volume 5, number 7 (July 2000),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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