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Cyberpunk

Cisco Kids

By Joab Jackson | Posted 10/25/2000

On a pretty much perfect mid-October day, the Poe Power Plant (PPP), a year-old computer-learning center in West Baltimore, unveiled 12 new computers. Outside the center, the clean, low-slung rowhouses of the Townes at the Terraces development--located where the Lexington Terrace public-housing project used to stand--basked in the sun. In the old boiler room of that high-rise, now refitted as the PPP, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) gathered the press and various bureaucrats to celebrate the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-sponsored "National Neighborhood Networks Week," complete with balloons and a buffet.

It may not have been big news, but the new computers and software are a good thing for the neighborhood. Four years ago, HUD awarded HABC a grant to tear down Lexington Terrace and build in its place more humane dwellings. As part of the grant, HUD stipulated that each of the new homes be equipped with computers and Internet access. By next February, HABC deputy commissioner Otis Rolley promised at the Oct. 19 unveiling, all 203 of the new rowhouses will have computers.

Still, the problem of knowing what to do with the computers once they're in place remains. I imagine some Townes at the Terraces residents already know how to use 'em. Some won't have any problem figuring it out themselves. And others just won't care. But most, I bet, will be somewhat intimidated. Don't want to hit the wrong key and all that. Hence the need for these new computer models at PPP itself--to get over such worries. These 12 new models added to PPP, in addition to the eight already in place, are training tools. The learning center offers residents a two-week course on getting to know their computers--how to surf the Internet and basic stuff like that. Another course teaches basic office applications--Microsoft Word, Excel, etc.

But what really caught my ear on that day were the new, higher-tech courses PPP is offering. When the learning center opened in July 1999, it encountered a demand for more technical offerings than just the basic course. So it's now offering an A+ certification course--a standardized track for PC-repair technicians--and a two-year certification course for high school students in Cisco network systems, with the training materials and some hardware donated by Cisco itself. For those who don't know, Cisco is the world's largest maker of networking hardware. Right now, there are 11 students from three West Baltimore schools enrolled in after-school training sessions through the Poe Power Plant.

"We're not just talking about giving residents a chance, but about giving them a running start," Harold Young, coordinator of the Maryland HUD program, said during his round on the podium.

This is good news--and, I might add, it's about time. One of the talking heads at the podium said graduates from the Cisco classes could expect to make $35,000 to $45,000 a year for starters. I'd wager he's underestimating. There's a huge need for tech-savvy people. According to the state's labor statistics, Maryland faces a shortage of about 18,000 technology workers.

Why did this make me happy? The Cisco program is not for everyone. Only certain detail-oriented, nuts-and-bolts types can understand the importance of such arcane stuff as the system's seven-layer model of data transport. But it's an expensive type of learning--requiring computers and routers and hubs and such to practice on, not to mention good instructors. I am glad such knowledge is finally getting to those who would probably not have access to it otherwise.

And it's also good news because Cisco is one of the top users of H-1B-visa labor, according to the American Immigration Center. H-1B visas are temporary three-year permits that allow skilled foreigners to work in the United States. The U.S. info-tech industry has been so desperate for tech-savvy workers that it's heavily lobbied Congress to raise the number of visas issued each year. Earlier this month, Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill to increase the cap from 115,000 to 195,000.

It's a short-term response to a long-term problem. Why aren't these companies finding the help they need here in the States? Why can't we take all that money that went into lobbying for this bill and instead funnel it into educational programs like PPP's? Perhaps Cisco realized this when it made its donation. Congress may have realized this when it stipulated that proceeds from the visa-application fee go to the retraining U.S. workers and providing math and science scholarships. One only hopes that more can be done. For, as the Poe Power Plant shows, we have vast pools of untapped talent in this country--and what's keeping more people from entering the high-tech work force is the high cost of entry. I don't want to make this an anti-immigration rant or anything, but to bring in outside help when we aren't giving enough of our own people at least the opportunity to learn those skills is just plain shortsighted.

And let's not underplay the cruel irony here. While H-1B visas are providing instant help, many of the people stuck in poorer urban neighborhoods, such as those around the former Lexington Terrace, are themselves descendants of another labor-immigration movement, centuries ago--that one involuntary. And with so much talk of reparations these days, more training centers like PPP--many more--would be a good start. At the very least, everyone deserves a running start in this new economy.

Charged difference: .

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