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Remarks of Assistant Secretary Irving

at the National Urban League and the National Leadership Council on Civil Rights Urban Technology Summit
June 26, 1998
"Refocusing Our Youth: From High Tops to High-Tech"


National Urban League and the National Leadership Council on Civil Rights
Urban Technology Summit


Remarks by Larry Irving
Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce
June 26, 1998


[as prepared]


Good morning. I'm delighted to be here to talk about a subject that is particularly important to me: the impact of communications technology in our urban communities. I want to commend the National Urban League for holding this conference on this topic - one that should be of paramount concern to all of us. In particular, I'd like to thank Hugh Price and Keith Fulton for their efforts in launching this conference. For those of you who don't know, Keith is already practicing what we are preaching today. His Technology Access Centers make information technology and services available to four underserved communities. I'd also like to thank Wendy Petties of the Urban League, not only for her efforts in this conference, but also for her excellent work moderating a panel at the White House Content Conference in California two weeks ago.

No issue is more important than ensuring that our communities, particularly our children, obtain access to new technologies and become technologically literate. Our nation's problems can't and won't be solved entirely by new technology, but these new technologies are tools that we can use to make significant changes in our communities. President Clinton and Vice President Gore have made it a national priority to provide every citizen access to computers so that they can obtain the skills needed to succeed in our increasingly technological economy. Many of you probably remember that Ron Brown also challenged us, five years ago, to connect our urban communities to the "information superhighway" through his "Get Connected" program. The time is long overdue for us to meet Ron Brown's challenge.

The Technological Revolution

It is vital that our schools and communities recognize the importance of technological training and literacy. As we enter the 21st century, we are increasingly becoming a technological society. Remember when we thought ATM machines were a big deal? Now, more and more of us are turning to Internet, not only to send e-mail, but to do our banking, pay bills, or make purchases. According to a report released by the Department of Commerce in April, traffic on the Internet is doubling every 100 days. In 1997, 2.7 trillion e-mails were sent globally. In 1996, only 34% of the Fortune 500 companies had World Wide Web sites; last year, 80% had web sites. Dell Computers is now selling $5 million in computers over the Web every day.

So it shouldn't surprise anyone that an increasing number of jobs require skills in information technology - skills that many Americans lack. The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that, between 1996 and 2006, the United States will require more than 1.3 million computer scientists and engineers, systems analysts, and computer programmers. These are jobs that pay, on average, $46,000 per year, compared to $29,000 per year for traditional manufacturing jobs. And who knows what technical skills will be required thirty or forty years down the road? I have heard that 80% of all jobs that will exist in the next century don't exist today. We will be using technologies that we have not yet fathomed, and our children will need the skills to adapt to those new technologies as well.

Currently, the number of jobs in the information technology sector is greatly outpacing the number of skilled workers in this area. At least 10% of the jobs in the high-tech industry (or 346,000) remain unfilled. The high-tech industry attributes this labor shortage to a lack of skilled labor. Software companies have said that the recruitment of skilled workers now tops their list of business concerns. The shortage of skilled labor has reached the point that high-tech companies are now lobbying Congress to increase the number of workers that can be hired from foreign countries. These companies claim that they need to rely on foreign expertise because the expertise is lacking at home.

Our challenge is to educate our students and communities so that they can successfully participate in this high-tech economy. Other countries recognize the value of computer training to their children's education and their economic growth. In China, for example, parents typically spend a year's salary to buy a computer for their child.

Yet in this country, a significant portion of our children - particularly those in low-income and minority communities - simply are not receiving the training they need to prepare them for the high-tech future. The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that wealthy schools were 2 ½ times more likely to have Internet access in classrooms than poor schools -- 36% vs. 14%. And we all know that wealthier children are more likely to have access to computers at home, as well.

This "digital divide" between the information "haves" and "have nots" will stunt the development of our urban communities, if we let it continue. Our inner cities have the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Meantime, children from low-income, urban neighborhoods are effectively shut out from high-tech jobs, which pay, on average, 73% more than the average private sector job. Ideally, our inner city youth would have an equal shot at becoming new Silicon Valley millionaires. Yet a very small fraction of these new computer millionaires are African-American or Latino.

The Administration's Efforts to Bridge the Digital Divide

The Clinton Administration has launched several programs to reduce the technology gap between our affluent and low-income communities. Two years ago, in his State of the Union Address, President Clinton challenged the country to connect every classroom by year 2000. The Administration worked hard to ensure that the 1996 Telecommunications Act included discounts for schools and libraries that were purchasing telecommunications services, Internet access, and classroom connections. Although this program has come under recent challenge, particularly on the Hill, the Administration has continued to support the need for a discounted "education rate" - or e-rate - for schools and libraries.

The Administration, through NTIA, also initiated a demonstration program, providing grants to non-profit and public entities that are using electronic services in innovative, and socially useful, ways. The Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP) has funded 332 projects in all fifty states, including projects assisting low-income neighborhoods in getting access to on-line health care information and to job bank databases. Unfortunately, Congress is now threatening to cut the level of funding for TIIAP, despite the program's success.

Finally, the Administration has also surveyed computer use throughout America's communities to determine the extent of the "digital divide." The 1995 White Paper, entitled "Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the 'Have Nots' in Rural and Urban America," determined that information "have nots" are disproportionately found in the country's urban and rural areas. Those statistics are now being updated, and a new survey will be released later this year.

These efforts, though they serve as significant models, are but a drop in the bucket in terms of what we need to do to connect our communities. We must gather more information on access to technologies, and we all need to do more to ensure that our communities receive the training and access to information services that they need.

The Straight-A Challenge

Today, I challenge all of you here to assist in this process. Your organizations can play a critical role in motivating our communities and our youth to understand the importance of becoming technologically literate and to make them feel comfortable with information technology. Your organizations are also in the best position to find the resources to purchase computers and improve informational services in your communities. Finally, you can think about ways to train our teachers and students so that they can master the skills they need.

Our efforts are needed in at least three areas: what I call "access," "aptitude," and "attitude." It's a triple-A plan, and we need to begin work in each of these areas immediately if our students are going to win straight As in technological literacy. I challenge each of your organizations to take meaningful steps in these areas.

Access. As I've discussed, many of our communities and students lack access to new technologies. We need more information about this technology gap.

For example, we need more information on whether computers or laptops are available at the schools, community colleges, and universities in your communities. Many universities have a wealth of technology available to their students. Some universities, such as Duke, Stanford, the University of North Carolina, and others, even require that students bring a PC with them when they enroll. NTIA plans to conduct a study of the information technology available in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribally-controlled community colleges, and other institutions of higher education. To conduct such a study, however, we need resources and assistance from organizations like yours.

We also need to think of creative measures to bring computers and information services to our urban communities. One way is through community or neighborhood centers. As valuable as schools and libraries are, community centers reach segments of the population -- such as the unemployed or elderly -- that might not use a school or library. Community centers are also natural places for after-school programs that can foster creative learning opportunities.

NTIA's TIIAP program has had particular success in serving urban neighborhoods through neighborhood computer centers.

One program we funded is "Plugged In," a program in East Palo Alto, California, which operates a community access center with computers and Internet access. Students can drop in after school to take computer training courses or use Internet. The students have now developed "Plugged In Enterprises," a program in which the kids are operating their own computer services businesses by producing World Wide Web pages for local businesses.

Another program is the National Urban League's Technology Access Center project, which is making information technology available to community organizations in Baltimore, Binghamton, Roxbury, and Newark. Each center uses computers to assist neighborhood residents with literacy training, preparing for the GED, and employment searches.

The York Community Asset Project, another TIIAP grantee, provides a central database for residents in one of York's most economically depressed neighborhoods. The database allows residents to identify community assets, such as rental housing or nearby clinics. By consolidating information on one database, the community can also track its economic development.

As I mentioned before, Congress is now threatening to reduce TIIAP's funding. A letter I received this morning from the Interactive Media Management stresses why this program is invaluable and should not be cut.

"On behalf of the Metropolitan Area Advisory Committee of San Diego, I managed a community network that was funded by a TIIAP grant in 1996. We set up fifteen public access terminals in some of San Diego's poorest neighborhoods, developed a multilingual training program, and taught hundreds of parents, students, small business owners and social service agency staff how to find and use the resources of Internet. There is no way these people would have access to this information without TIIAP - the current E-rate guidelines would not have provided for access in the high-traffic community centers . . . that we were able to serve. Every day we saw examples of the impact that information could have on people's lives; parents researching healthcare information for disabled children, students finding scholarships through after-school programs, and entrepreneurs locating customers and suppliers."

I encourage you to make your communities and constituents aware of the projects funded by TIIAP, which are listed on NTIA's website at I also urge you to consider getting existing centers in your community, such as the YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, your church or athletic club, involved in providing technical training.

Additionally, we need to make sure that all of our schools, not just those in affluent suburban communities, obtain computer technology. One way to accomplish this is through a community "NetDay." "NetDays" have been described as "electronic barn-raisings," bringing together community volunteers and companies to wire neighborhood schools. There have been very few "NetDays," however, in inner city neighborhoods. I encourage you to bridge this gap by bringing your neighborhoods, schools, and businesses together to create "NetDays" in your own communities. You are in the best position to motivate the communities and explain why information technology is important. You are also in the best position to identify Internet service providers or other telecommunications companies that can dedicate equipment, training, and funding to these schools. Imagine what could be accomplished if every NAACP, Urban League and LaRaza local chapter, every fraternity and sorority, every professional organization, every church, and every bowling league adopted a high school and conducted a "NetDay."

There are numerous funding sources, including public funds, available for "NetDays." For example, the White House will be hosting a Community Empowerment Conference, along with the NextDay to NetDay Coalition, on July 14-16 in Washington, D.C. That conference will explore ways that empowerment zone block grants can be used to wire schools in Empowerment Zone/Enterprise Community (EZ/EC) communities. I encourage you to learn more about this conference, as well as explore other funding sources such as state vocational education programs.

Aptitude. As important as it is to provide the hardware, we also need to provide students training in using new technologies. We know what high-tech jobs will be available between now and 2006. The next step is to talk to the high-tech companies about skills our students should learn so they can be qualified to fill these jobs. Why are we talking about importing skilled workers, when we should be talking about imparting work skills?

We also need to get more high-tech companies involved in the training process. A number of computer companies are already operating computer training programs for teachers and students. Cisco Systems, for example, has teamed up with schools across the country and is now operating a "Network Academy" in every state. These academies train teachers in computer skills so that they can, in turn, teach their students how to use new technologies. Students who pass four levels of Cisco training are then eligible for jobs with Cisco Systems straight out of high school. I understand that, in the first pilot effort at the Thurgood Marshall School in California, a number of students finished the four-level program. One went to college; the others went to work with Cisco. Recently, Cisco Systems pledged that it would establish a Networking Academy in every empowerment zone that wants one.

While computer literacy is essential, we also need to train our students in high level math and science skills. According to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, these skills are particularly lacking among minority students. Only 6 percent of blacks and Latinos take pre-calculus or physics in high school. We need to work with our schools to improve these levels of participation.

Some high-tech companies are also devoting resources to improve these long-term skills. Hewlett-Packard, for example, has committed $5 million to several universities to improve math and science programs in local schools. Hewlett-Packard has also created an e-mail mentorship program, through which students can e-mail their math or science questions to a telementor. That program can use the expertise of volunteers without requiring much of their time or that they live nearby.

There are a variety of programs and resources such as these. If a program does not already exist in your community, I urge you to challenge businesses to consider creating one tailored to your community's needs.

We also need your help to engage our communities' best and brightest to become involved in the lives of our rising stars. I'm a real fan of mentoring and know that I wouldn't be where I am today without it. We should be thinking about internship opportunities, which can really make a difference to a student. Last night, I attended a reception for Media Careers for Minorities, a group that provides internships to minority students in television and radio. I met Lisa Setrini, a young woman from Miami, who learned how to design Web sites while she was an intern at MSNBC last year. This year, Lisa has started her own Internet company and already has two partners and three employees. We should consider creating a new program called "New Media Careers for Minorities" that would give more minority students similar kinds of internship experiences in the high-tech field.

Attitude. Finally, we need to make sure that our students and communities feel comfortable with new technologies and are aware of the importance of high-tech skills. As President Clinton said in his Commencement Address at M.I.T., "all students should feel as comfortable with a keyboard as a chalkboard; as comfortable with a laptop as a textbook." Bringing about this change may be the toughest task ahead of us.

The more contact our communities have with information technologies, the more likely they will feel competent using them. Meantime, we need to convince our communities and students that it is worth their time mastering computer skills. Most kids would rather grow up to be Michael Jordan than Bill Gates and spend time on a basketball court than in a computer room. In fact, earlier this year Sports Illustrated reported that 57% of all African-American males expect to be a pro-athlete, even though there are only 2,400 professional athletes in America. Compare that with the 22,000 Microsoft employees with stock options worth at least $1 million. We need to teach our kids that the chance of achieving fame and fortune is far less likely through the NBA than through technology. Silicon Valley, for example, produces 62 new millionaires every day. Our children should know as much about Paul Allen (the co-founder of Microsoft and owner of the Portland Trailblazers) as Paul Pierce, and as much about Michael Dell (whose net worth increases by at least $100 million a month) as Michael Jordan (who earns $100 million a year). And our children should have a shot -- better than a three-pointer -- at being one of those computer success stories.

I encourage you to be inventive in considering how to reach out to kids and communities. We might partner with ad agencies to promote industry leaders such as Kim Polese, the young founder of the high-profile start-up called "Marimba," or David Ellington, the founder of "NetNoir." We should invite these leaders to schools and community events to demonstrate the programs they have created. If our communities can spend as much time idolizing our high-tech stars, as they do our sports stars, then our children will finally believe that, they too, can achieve success in the high-tech world.

Conclusion. I've already outlined an action plan that I realize could consume all of our energy and time. We need to provide our communities access to new technologies, such as through community centers and by wiring our schools. We need to raise the aptitude of our students in using these technologies by finding training opportunities in computers, math, and science. And we need to change the attitude of our communities so that they realize that being technologically literate is as -- no, more -- important than having a good fade-away jumpshot.

Now, I want to add one more essential item. Today's Urban Technology Summit will likely generate numerous ideas from our community and government leaders. After these discussions, it would be especially useful if we could sit across the table from the leaders of the technology industry. I therefore propose that the National Urban League convene another Urban Technology Summit that would include, not only the distinguished leaders here today, but also industry leaders such as Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, John Chambers, Michael Armstrong, Ivan Seidenberg, and other CEOs. Just as the Rainbow Coalition is making inroads into Wall Street, we need to make inroads into the world of telecommunications and information technology.

Let's sit down with the high-tech industry leaders and find out what they think our schools should be teaching so that students can become employees in their companies. Let's find out how to create a new class of entrepreneurs in our communities. Let's talk about getting minority businesses on line using this new technology and becoming e-commerce participants. And let's discuss how to use this technology to improve our society. Remember, this technology is not just about money and jobs, it can be used to uplift our communities and promote democratic and religious values. We need frank discussions with these leaders, and should not let much time escape before convening the next summit. This can, and should, be a win-win for all.

I'd like to close with a quote:

"There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today . . . that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation . . . . Now, whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges and new opportunities. . . . [T]he geographical oneness of this age has come into being to a large extent through modern man's scientific ingenuity. Modern man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. . . . Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this."

That was Rev. Martin Luther King, March 31, 1968.