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Networks to Nerdistan: The Role of Labor Market Intermediaries in the Entry-level IT Labor Market


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Although networks have long governed economic relations, they assume even more importance in a knowledge-based economy. Yet, some argue that because of the lack of social networks and human capital, some groups are permanently 'switched off' the networks of the global economy. Evidence presented in this article suggests that instead there is latent potential for access to the network, due to the rise of networked community-based organizations and the increasing accessibility of technology. Based on surveys and in-depth interviews with almost 700 workers and training providers, I show how the switched off are entering jobs in information technology through network ties and the acquisition of soft skills, or communication and interaction skills. Although community-based training providers are best positioned to help disadvantaged jobseekers enter the network society, changes in the US workforce development system are reinforcing network exclusivity, rather than facilitating this upward mobility. Copyright (c) 2006 The Author. Journal Compilation (c) 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
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Volume 30.3 September 2006 548–63 International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published by Blackwell
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Original Articles
Labor market intermediaries in the entry-level IT labor marketKaren Chapple
Networks to Nerdistan: The Role of Labor
Market Intermediaries in the Entry-level IT
Labor Market
Although networks have long governed economic relations, they assume even more
importance in a knowledge-based economy. Yet, some argue that because of the lack of
social networks and human capital, some groups are permanently ‘switched off’ the
networks of the global economy. Evidence presented in this article suggests that instead
there is latent potential for access to the network, due to the rise of networked
community-based organizations and the increasing accessibility of technology. Based
on surveys and in-depth interviews with almost 700 workers and training providers, I
show how the switched off are entering jobs in information technology through network
ties and the acquisition of soft skills, or communication and interaction skills. Although
community-based training providers are best positioned to help disadvantaged
jobseekers enter the network society, changes in the US workforce development system
are reinforcing network exclusivity, rather than facilitating this upward mobility.
Networks organize the positions of actors, organizations and institutions in societies and
economies. The social relevance of any social unit is thus conditioned by its presence or
absence in specific networks. Absence of a dominant network leads to structural irrelevance
(Castells, 1997a: 29).
Although networks have long governed economic relations, they assume even more
importance in a knowledge-based economy. Social networks condition and organize
economic exchanges among individuals, and the ‘network enterprises’ of the global
economy use business networks to help them adapt and innovate more quickly
(Granovetter, 1988; Castells, 1997a). The ability to expand networks rapidly through
information technology (IT) becomes a key competitive advantage in global production
systems (Castells, 1997a; David and Foray, 2002).
Yet it remains unclear who can even participate in the network society — let alone
gain access to ‘Nerdistan’ (where, according to analyst Joel Kotkin, the high-tech
workers congregate).
Castells (1997b: 21), for instance, argues that the global economy,
facilitated by IT, will use networks to penetrate areas ‘selectively, linking valuable
segments and discarding used up, or irrelevant, locales and people’. The existence of
networks thus creates a duality, of the ‘switched-on’ and ‘switched-off’, deliberately
and selectively including some groups and excluding others. The digital divide
reinforces this process of exclusion, as many lack access to the technology, education
and training necessary to become the symbolic analysts of the new economy (Reich,
1991; Servon, 2002).
I argue instead that rather than fostering exclusion, an IT-driven, networked economic
structure actually offers an opportunity for the ‘switched-off’ to enter Nerdistan.
1Kotkin’s Nerdistan (2000) is actually the US metros such as Silicon Valley and Raleigh-Durham that
attract computer professionals.
Labor market intermediaries in the entry-level IT labor market 549
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Disadvantaged community members may be able to cross the divide assisted by strategic
community-based organizations (CBOs) with the ability to connect to local industry and
teach the skills and language of the ‘switched on’. Because IT is becoming increasingly
user friendly and firms rely largely on networks and intermediaries to recruit entry-level
workers, there is latent potential for access to the network. How and whether it is realized
depends on governance — more specifically, the institutions and policies that facilitate
the social interactions that lead to job opportunities.
This article examines the role of CBO intermediaries in creating access to jobs in
information technology for disadvantaged adults with little or no college education,
asking whether and how it is possible for ‘switched-off’ individuals to enter technology-
related employment. Based upon surveys and in-depth interviews with almost 700
workers, employers and training providers, I look at the role of different kinds of
intermediaries in providing the networks and training that lead to IT jobs for the
I begin with a brief overview of the research on job access and the ‘digital divide’
and then introduce my own research methodology and data. I next analyze how
jobseekers from disadvantaged backgrounds enter the IT workforce, arguing that access
comes not just from network ties but also from the acquisition and use of soft skills, or
communication and interaction skills. The last section examines the policy implications
for workforce development. The US workforce development system is currently
undergoing a radical transformation, from a centralized job training system to a locally
designed employment services format. The implementation of the 1998 Workforce
Investment Act (WIA) has devolved authority over workforce development to the state
and local levels and has created new incentives to connect workers to employers more
effectively. Is this new flexibility likely to help develop or obstruct the networks to IT
employment? I argue that WIA is not structured in a way that facilitates upward mobility
for the ‘switched off’, but rather reinforces network exclusivity. I conclude by suggesting
ways in which WIA could be redesigned to increase job opportunities for entry-level IT
Getting a job: the case of information technology
A substantial and growing literature looks at how jobseekers find employment,
suggesting that social interaction continues to play an important role despite the advent
of the internet. Yet recent work examining how disadvantaged groups may bridge the
digital divide continues to emphasize the role of human capital attainment, rather than
networks. Moreover, the two literatures remain largely disconnected: there is little
research on access to jobs in information technology, and the digital divide literature
focuses more on the acquisition of technology skills than employment and upward
Access to jobs
A rich body of literature examines job search strategies, i.e. whether jobseekers use
personal contacts, such as relatives, friends, acquaintances or teachers; institutional
intermediaries, such as schools, employment agencies or union hiring halls; newspaper
or internet advertisements; or direct contact with the employer.
Roughly half of all jobs, whether low-skill or high-skill, are found through contacts,
but low-income, minority and/or female jobseekers will obtain a slightly smaller
proportion of their jobs via contact (Corcoran
et al.
, 1980; Campbell and Rosenfeld,
1985; Granovetter, 1995). Weak ties (e.g. work contacts, casual acquaintances or other
non-intimate associates) play an important role in the job search. These ties provide
access to more varied sources of information, from a greater variety of people, than that
provided through a more dense personal network of family and friends (Lin
et al.
, 1981;
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International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Granovetter, 1995). However, because the low-income, minorities and women have
relatively smaller networks, they are often unable to develop these ‘bridging’ ties
(Braddock and McPartland, 1987; Moore, 1990; Granovetter, 1995; Elliott and Sims,
2001). A further disadvantage in using these informal channels of job information occurs
because these groups are particularly underrepresented in the IT workforce (Garcia and
Giles, 1999).
Jobseekers increasingly turn to the internet for job leads (Kuhn and Skuterud, 2000).
Job search theory, as developed by Stigler (1961) and others, emphasizes the importance
of information gathering; the implication is that the internet may improve matches
between jobseekers and employers, by providing more information about opportunities
and applicants. Yet, a deluge of résumés sent over the internet can overwhelm employers
with information (Autor, 2001); and indeed, internet searching is becoming less effective
over time, perhaps because it no longer signals technological savvy as it once did
(Fountain, 2005).
Intermediaries play an increasingly important role in job access, suggesting that
finding jobs through some form of social interaction remains important in the new
economy. Benner (2002) shows how the pressure to innovate and compete in the new
economy has led employers to rely increasingly on intermediaries to screen and prepare
prospective workers. Complex networks of firms, trade associations, colleges, temporary
agencies and training providers have arisen to respond to rapid changes in the labor
market. Increasingly, it is through these workforce development networks that the
community-based organizations (CBOs) targeting the ‘switched-off’ are able to foster
upward mobility for less-skilled workers. Harrison and Weiss (1998) argue that CBOs
operationalize these networks by turning weak-tie relationships with employers into the
strong ties of obligation that create job opportunities. However, what remains unexplored
in this literature is how these networks work for disadvantaged jobseekers trying to cross
the digital divide into the IT workforce.
Working in IT: the digital divide
The literature on technology and work generally emphasizes the importance of acquiring
education and skills in order to work in the knowledge economy. Researchers have long
argued that technological change is skill-biased: the advent of information technology
increases the cognitive complexity of work and creates a new class of symbolic analysts
requiring high levels of education (Reich, 1991). Because low-income minorities,
particularly African-Americans, are less likely to obtain college education, they lack
access to jobs in the information-based sector (Carnoy, 1994). Although research on the
digital divide (the gulf in access to IT by race, ethnicity, class and geography) focuses
more on access to computers than working in IT, it has also begun emphasizing the
importance of education in addition to access (Servon, 2002; Mossberger
et al.
, 2003;
et al.
, 2004).
Yet research suggests that working in the knowledge economy is not correlated
strongly with formal education, and that increasing computerization of the workplace
is not necessarily skill-biased (Spenner, 1988; Howell and Wieler, 1998; Jacoby and
Goldschmidt, 1998; Autor
et al.
, 2003). Instead, employers are increasingly
emphasizing on-the-job training and competencies such as interpersonal (or ‘soft’)
skills, due in part to the constantly changing software tools and technology they use
(Moss and Tilly, 2001). Soft skills are defined as ‘skills, abilities, and traits that
pertain to personality, attitude, and behavior rather than to formal or technical
knowledge’ (
.: 44). Racial discrimination shapes employer perceptions of soft
skills: employers tend to view the interaction and motivation skills of African-
Americans and Latinos negatively (
.). The job training literature (e.g. Grubb,
1995) suggests that jobseekers can acquire such soft skills, and indeed programs
focusing on soft skills, particularly related to the job search, have emerged around the
US in response to welfare reform. However, little is known about the potential for
Labor market intermediaries in the entry-level IT labor market 551
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
soft skills training to help the disadvantaged overcome discrimination and cross the
digital divide.
Bridging the gap: access to IT jobs
The expansion of technology employment during the four peak years of the dot-com
boom (1997–2000) created thousands of employment opportunities for workers with
minimal technology skills. New occupational classifications such as web developer and
internet technician emerged overnight, and new policy, lobbying and educational efforts
surfaced across the country to fill the gap in the entry-level IT workforce (ITAA, 2000).
Entry-level occupations in IT are a relatively new phenomenon, as more advanced
and traditional IT occupations such as computer programming have gone through an
initial lifecycle, resulting in first downskilling and then the rise of entry-level work as
more experienced workers move up the job ladder. The computer support specialist
occupation provides an illustration. As computers began to become commonplace
throughout all economic sectors, the computer support specialist occupation emerged
to provide technical assistance for users of hardware, software and systems. At first, the
new support tasks were incorporated into existing computer programming jobs in a
process of ‘job enlarging’ (i.e. the expansion of job duties). But gradually the technical
support duties shifted to others, such as clerical workers seeking a promotion who could
be trained easily on the job, or four-year college graduates with some computer training.
Although the dot-com boom sped up this occupational lifecycle, the downskilling of
occupations is a regular phenomenon that reoccurs as new technologies are introduced
(Useem, 1986).
Concurrently, non-profit training providers, from CBOs to community colleges,
began providing low-cost, short-term (3–6 month) IT training programs in elementary
networking, computer repair and web design to low-income communities (Chapple
et al.
, 2000). To act as labor market intermediaries, most of these providers either
positioned themselves in workforce development networks or built close ties to
employers. But networking was not enough to bridge the divide; it was necessary also
to develop intense curricula in soft skills, particularly the communication aptitude so
critical in both the IT environment and the job search (Chapple
et al.
, 2000). This
suggests that instead of having to manufacture strong ties of obligation through their
networks (as Harrison and Weiss argue), training providers can connect to employers
by inculcating their graduates with interaction skills that essentially proxy for weak ties.
The key questions then become whether and how these intermediaries are providing
these networks and soft skills training for their graduates, how effective they are, and
whether current policy supports this approach.
Data and methodology
To examine these questions, I looked at both the IT workforce and IT intermediaries
in four contrasting US regions: San Francisco, where the majority of technology
employment is in the high-tech sector; New York, where IT workers are concentrated
in finance and communications; Chicago, home of a large finance and computer services
sector; and Washington, DC, with a technology workforce driven by government. To
obtain an overview of the job search and placement processes used by a broad array of
2Not all entry-level occupations survive: in a process of upskilling and job enlarging, some entry-level
occupations become subsumed into higher-level occupations. Such is the story of the web designer
occupation: defined as an emerging occupation by the BLS in the late 1990s, it is now more often
a skill that is incorporated into the work of graphic designers, computer support specialists, and
other IT or IT-related occupations.
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2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
jobseekers and training providers, I used a web-based survey and a mail survey. For a
more qualitative sense of how the transition to work is occurring, I relied on in-depth
A web-based survey with a response from 298 jobseekers concentrated in the four
regions provided an overview of the job search process.
The survey sample was drawn
from a strategic sample of approximately 4,000 jobseekers with current résumés posted
on the web; excluding inaccurate e-mail addresses, the net response rate was
approximately 15%. To be included, the résumé had to mention keywords associated
with entry-level IT occupations, such as technician, help desk, or web design.
Respondents received a US $10 gift certificate for participating. This method introduced
a potential nonresponse bias: although most recent graduates of training or educational
programs are familiar with web posting, older or less educated IT workers are not. In
addition, it is possible that among those refusing to participate were the most busy,
successful, and/or affluent jobseekers — who may also have the best effective social
networks. Thus, the survey results are most readily generalizable to the universe of active
jobseekers who are familiar with web-based job search methods; they most likely
understate the extent of social networking into jobs.
The web-based survey, conducted in 2002, asked respondents to provide information
about their first job in IT and up to eight subsequent IT jobs, including the job
description, period of employment and job search method. The survey also obtained
information on educational attainment, including IT training, and other demographic
In-depth, semi-structured interviews with 93 non-profit training program graduates,
held in 2001 and 2002, explored the job search process in more detail for the most
disadvantaged jobseekers transitioning into IT; follow-up phone interviews in 2003 and
2004 determined how the respondents were progressing in the IT workforce.
Respondents were sampled from six different training programs: Training, Inc. in
Newark, New Jersey; Per Scholas in Bronx, New York; Northern Virginia Community
College in Alexandria, Virginia; Byte Back in Washington, DC; Street Tech in San Pablo,
California; and the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) in San Francisco, California. Each
offers a 3–4 month training course in computer hardware, elementary networking or
web design.
To look at the role of training providers in providing soft skills and job placement, I
conducted a mail survey to which 175 training providers responded in spring 2003. The
sample was the universe of 800 WIA-eligible training providers supplying IT training
in the four regions under study.
The net response rate (excluding providers who had
moved or gone out of business) was 22%. The pool of providers who refused to
participate in the survey included those which were too busy to participate (either
because of high demand or minimal staffing); were not complying with WIA regulations
and thus reluctant to respond; and/or were less civic-minded. The effects of this
nonresponse bias are unclear, but the nonrespondents likely included both the more
successful (busy) and less successful (reticent) organizations. Thus the sample likely
excludes the extremes, both those with very good employer connections and those with
poor contact networks. In this survey, job placement workers at these organizations were
asked questions about their soft skills curriculum, placement resources and employer
3It should be noted that jobseekers are mobile and they were reporting their entire job histories.
Thus, they undoubtedly held some of their jobs while located in regions outside of the four under
4WIA requires training providers to get certified in order to qualify for government-training monies.
Lists of these WIA-eligible training providers are publicly available on the web. Overall in the provider
sample, 66% are private, 10% are non-profit, and 24% are public. However, the survey respondent
sample slightly overrepresents public institutions, at 31%, and underrepresents privates, at 58%, so
it is weighted to reflected the universe of training providers.
Labor market intermediaries in the entry-level IT labor market 553
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2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Finally, to provide more insight into the networks and placement techniques of
training providers, in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 49
employers, 30 training providers, and 20 key informants in the workforce development
How IT workers network into jobs
The following looks first at the entry paths into IT employment among IT workers as a
whole, and then in more depth at how graduates of the non-profit IT training programs
under study network in the workforce.
Overall entry paths into IT
For the IT worker population as a whole, the web is gradually replacing not only
newspapers and schools, but also, to a certain extent, networks. Since the use of the web
became commonplace only in the mid-1990s, Table 1 compares how workers found their
first job in the period from 1970 to 1993 with how they found their first job since, from
1994 to 2002. With the advent of the web, which gained a 21% share of the job searches
after 1994, declines in other job search methods — particularly networking through
acquaintances, school and the newspaper — have occurred. In essence, the web has
replaced these intermediaries. These findings were confirmed by employer interviews
about recruitment of IT workers: the largest number (two-thirds) mentioned relying on
the web, mostly in conjunction with other methods such as referrals, while one-half use
referrals (along with other means).
Looking specifically at the type of entry level, low-end IT occupations that the non-
profit training program graduates enter, and only at the period from 1994 onwards, the
picture changes dramatically. Table 2 shows that respondents working in entry-level
occupations in help desk support, networking and web design are relying
disproportionately on friends to get into their first job. Workers entering help desk and
networking occupations for the first time also rely on school, while web-related workers
rely, not surprisingly, on the web.
Thus, the web is gaining in importance in the job search, but formal and informal
intermediaries continue to play an important role, particularly for entry-level workers
going into relatively low-wage IT occupations. The following shifts focus from the
universe of entry-level IT workers to job training program graduates, looking first at
their success in crossing the divide into the IT workforce, and then at the role of networks
and soft skills in that transition.
Table 1
Getting the first job: 1970–1993 versus 1994–2002
How Worker got First Job All Respondents
All Respondents
All Respondents
No. % No. % No. %
Acquaintance 55 22 22 25 33 20
Friend 47 19 17 19 30 18
Agency 31 12 10 11 21 13
School 44 17 20 22 24 15
Newspaper 41 16 20 22 21 13
Web 35 14003521
Tota l 2 53 100 89 100 164 100
Web-based survey of IT workers conducted by the author, 2002
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International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Table 2
Getting the first job by entry-level occupation type
How Worker got First Job
Help desk/
No.%No.%No. %
Acquaintance 33 20 8 21 10 16
Friend 30 18 9 24 15 24
Agency 21 13 4 11 8 13
School 24 15 10 26 7 11
Newspaper 21 13 4 11 6 10
Web 35 21 3 8 16 26
Tota l 164 100 38 100 62 100
Web-based survey of IT workers conducted by the author, 2002
Entering IT: sample of job training program graduates
Relative to the US IT workforce overall, IT job training program graduates in this sample
are disproportionately minority, female and uneducated; one-third have just a high
school diploma, general equivalency diploma, or less (Table 3). Most are in their late
20s or 30s; the average age is 35. Most (77%) are still working in IT three years after
attending the training program.
Most importantly, all of these groups are making substantial wage progress (Table 4).
From their hourly wages in their last job before entering IT (usually in retail, personal
services or construction), these training program graduates generally experience an
increase in wages of over 50%, from about US $13 to $20 per hour. Due perhaps to
their high wage levels prior to entering IT, whites generally experience the least wage
progress (an average of 42%). In contrast, immigrants see an increase in wages of over
two-thirds on average, and African-Americans gain about 46%. The most dramatic
differences are by educational level: with some college education, wages increase by an
average of 44%, but with just a high school or general equivalency diploma (or less),
wages increase by 74%. The more disadvantaged the jobseeker is to start, the greater
the benefits of the program.
Networking into the IT workforce:
the view from the wrong side of the divide
Intermediaries such as training programs play an important role in helping inexperienced
jobseekers find their first job. In this study’s sample of non-profit training program
graduates, 90% found their first jobs through the program itself. The connection between
the program and employers provides the trust that makes placement work: as Cynthia
says, ‘It was the connections Training, Inc. had with Horizon. My degree didn’t have
anything to do with it. The company gave us a chance when others wouldn’t’.
The reference from the training program essentially substitutes for work experience,
which is critical for those trying to break into IT. As Lucinda from Per Scholas says,
‘They helped me to get my first job, which is usually really hard because everybody
wants you to have experience … It changed my life’. The arm-twisting that the program
director does has another function as well — building confidence in the jobseeker, as
Ruben says: ‘I knew I had the job before I even came here. I can sense things and I
knew what was going on already and that helped too. And I was recommended highly
by the people at Per Scholas’.
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International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
The role of the job developer — the person responsible for making connections with
employers, finding out about job leads, and preparing graduates for interviews —
becomes particularly important in training programs because placement has to occur
quickly, before software versions become obsolete and trainee skill sets fade. Sarah
credits the BAVC job developer: ‘I couldn’t have done it on my own. That’s the part
that I was really worried about. But they had this person that did it all for you — you
just told her what type of job you wanted, and she found leads for you’. Mary adds,
‘I’ve been through programs where they’re supposed to help you. And there’s always
been like missing steps. Not really knowing who to talk to, how to bridge that gap. And
that’s what BAVC helped me do’.
Other forms of direct networking intervention come from corporate involvement in
a program, such as mentoring. An executive producer at an e-commerce firm helped
Gene, a graduate of Street Tech, fix up his résumé. He credits the assistance with helping
him get a foot in the door for the first time: ‘I’ve always been kinda lackadaisical about
work, but he helped me be more professional’.
Finally, networking with peers is important. Two years after attending BAVC, Jessica
feels that the network that she built both with BAVC staff and with other graduates from
her year has been critical to her job success: all of her jobs have come through people
Table 3
Characteristics of the sample (graduates of non-profit training programs).
Respondent Characteristics No. %
African-American 38 41
First-generation immigrant 19 20
Latino 10 11
Other 5 5
21 23
Female 41 55
Male 52 66
Educational attainment
Less than high school 4 4
High school/GED 25 27
Some 2-year college 20 22
Associate’s degree and/or some 4-year college 21 23
Bachelor’s degree and/or some graduate school 23 25
Age group
19–29 26 28
20–39 40 43
40–49 23 25
Employment status 3–4 years after program
Employed in IT or IT-related 49 77
Employed, not in IT 12 19
Unemployed 3 5
556Karen Chapple
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
associated with the program, and she is beginning to connect graduates with
opportunities as well.
A mix of private, public and non-profit institutions provides job training, and most
try to connect their graduates with employers. The privates are mostly proprietary trade
schools (often national chains that advertise widely on billboards and TV), as well as
some private four-year universities. The non-profits are mostly community-based
organizations that target a population needing even more intensive hand-holding. As
the CEO of Per Scholas explains, ‘Of our 102 graduates last year, maybe two would
have been able to graduate from community college. Only a couple would have been
able to even walk through the doors and stay in class’. The public institutions are
mostly community colleges and four-year universities, but also government-run
programs. The colleges generally don’t see themselves as part of a workforce
development system; many of their trainees will stay on to enter the state university
system. The major difference between the three types of training providers is cost.
Proprietary trade schools are charging as much as US $14,000 for the same curriculum
that costs about US $4,000 at the public institution and may be free at the non-profit
In part because of geographical proximity to local governments, coupled with strong
connections to employer advisory boards, public and non-profit training providers tend
to have the richest networks for job placement. The mail survey of training
intermediaries asked them to name the five employers with whom they had placed the
most people. One-third were able to name multiple employers they had placed 10 or
more graduates with. These intensive relationships were particularly characteristic of
the public and non-profit providers. For example, Training, Inc. has a very strong
relationship with Horizon-Blue Cross Blue Shield, which has taken 42 different
graduates. One of the reasons for the strong relationship is the political pressure for
large local corporations to hire locally. Another reason is the personal relationships. The
job developer at Training, Inc. says: ‘It takes such a long time to build up a relationship.
It’s not the company, it’s the individual who matters’.
Public training providers tend to be dispersed, while non-profits are concentrated in
central city areas and private schools follow the job market (Figure 1 provides an
Table 4
Wage progress, before and after entering IT, by race/ethnicity, gender and
educational level
Respondent Characteristic Hourly Wages
in Last Job prior
to Entering IT
Hourly Wages
in Most Recent
IT Job (US $)
Wage Progress
African-American 11.02 16.09 46.0
First-generation immigrant 13.47 22.76 69.0
Latino 11.73 21.00 79.1
White 16.11 22.95 42.5
Female 11.74 20.58 75.3
Male 13.98 19.95 42.7
Educational attainment
High-school diploma, GED or less 10.65 18.54 74.1
Some college 14.13 20.35 44.0
College degree 14.20 22.79 60.5
Labor market intermediaries in the entry-level IT labor market 557
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
illustration for the New York metropolitan area). This location pattern, which places
non-profits in close proximity to central city governments, and colleges near
governments in outlying areas, may help facilitate a stronger relationship with local
government: both public and non-profit providers are more likely to connect with city
government services and Workforce Investment Boards (Figure 2) than the private
providers are.
The majority of providers have multi-faceted relationships with employers, from
assistance with curriculum development to mentorship. However, the public and non-
profit providers are more likely to have in-depth relationships with employers, including
representation on an advisory board and partnering in training.
Providers use multiple methods to contact employers. Most call employers on
behalf of graduates (‘cold calling’). Initial contact is more likely to come from
provider than employer, but there are significant differences among types:
employers are most likely to contact public institutions and least likely to contact
private (Figure 2). Interestingly, public institutions have relatively long contact lists;
they are significantly more likely to have 50 or more employers to contact
(Figure 3).
Disadvantaged jobseekers get their foot in the door with the help of their training
program, which networks aggressively with employers. These findings suggest that
public and non-profit providers are most effective at this type of networking; those using
private providers are more likely to have to cross the divide on their own.
Figure 1
Location of IT training providers, NY region (source: WIA-eligible training provider
databases, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York)
558Karen Chapple
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Using soft skills to enter the IT workforce
The weak tie is effective in the job search because networking through an acquaintance,
someone who knows you from an environment outside the home, creates a bridge
between different worlds that opens up opportunities (Granovetter, 1995; Johnson
et al.
1999; Chapple, 2001). Here I extend that idea of the weak tie: beyond characterizing a
relationship between people from different worlds, it seems also to describe an
, a signal that can be activated between any two people by a proxy.
The existence of connections between programs and employers is just a first step.
Critical to activating the program’s weak ties with employers is the jobseeker’s
demonstration of newly acquired soft skills in the interview to show that they ‘get’ IT.
Companies confirm the importance of soft skills: in interviews, almost all mentioned
soft skills as the most important characteristic they seek in an entry-level employee.
This soft skills signal may take several different forms. Perhaps most important is
sensitivity to the language and culture of IT, not only fluency with the technical jargon,
but also patience with inexperienced users and ability to communicate with other
Figure 2
Ways that providers interact with workforce development network (source: mail
survey of training providers conducted by the author, 2003)
Provider type
Provider cold- calling
Employer recruitment
Board of directors
Networking events
Workforce Investment Board
City government services
NonprofitPrivate Public
Figure 3
Size of employer contact list (source: mail survey of training providers conducted
by the author, 2003)
Private Public Nonprofit
Provider type
Size of employer contact list
< 5
Labor market intermediaries in the entry-level IT labor market 559
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
members of the team. But the correct appearance also matters: jobseekers should show
cultural ease or ‘whiteness’, the ability to dress and speak like white corporate America.
The awareness of this ‘cultural competence’ comes in part from the efforts of pioneering
US intermediaries such as STRIVE and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Jobs Initiative,
both of which encourage explicit discussion of race and class issues among participants
(Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2001). Competence in the code of corporate America
means general ability to deal with middle-class worksite norms, such as the avoidance
of slang (such as Black English) and the masking of strong emotions. Troy sums it up:
‘Training, Inc. wants to change you from who you are to what they say corporate
America wants you to be. They help you walk the walk, talk the talk through teamwork,
peer support’. Jobseekers demonstrate sensitivity to the IT culture in part by showing a
high level of enthusiasm for learning. Companies love the ‘sponges’ who love to solve
problems, who will read a book to figure out what to do. Said a manager at a financial
services firm, ‘I look for someone who is hungry — hungry to do the work. It’s so great
to see when the lights come on during the training process — not someone who just
wants to fill the chair’. The key for these firms is worker creativity, or the ability to take
a risk and think outside the box. Some described this as leadership, a concept that
comprises not only creativity but also the ability to multi-task, ‘to walk and chew gum
at the same time’.
Jabari illustrates this kind of technical fluency and personal motivation. In our
interview he was reticent until the subject of technology came up. He became
passionately animated on the subject of the evolution of operating systems, the
comparative virtues of NT and XP, and why I need a firewall with my DSL line. To an
employer, this animation suggests a worker with the motivation to jump into a problem
and do whatever research is necessary to solve it. Without knowing whether or not Jabari
can troubleshoot effectively, an employer will read this enthusiasm as evidence of having
the persistence to solve IT problems. As one IT firm told us, ‘There is a certain type of
person I look for, ones that look like they spent their summers at UNIX camp’.
Communication skills, as well as customer service, are also a strong concern. Because
in IT, ‘you are dealing with people that are already frustrated and upset’, tech support
workers in particular need strong communication skills. It’s also a matter of business
value: as an IT service company told us, ‘It’s how you communicate to the end user
what you did and how you did it’. Gail, a BAVC graduate, clearly understands: ‘I like
to work with clients. The intonation is subtle, and you need to be face-to-face for a
couple hours to pick up what they really want’.
Communication skills are particularly critical for help desk jobs. Like many of the
women entering IT, Maria came from a helping profession, social work. She sees this
background as key to her ease in working in customer services as a help desk technician.
Asked about the types of skills she uses on the job, she says: ‘How can this job just be
technical? It’s about personality’. Her co-workers tease her: ‘Are you doing counseling
again? That should be $80 per hour’. Evidence of communication skills can come in
the application process itself: for instance, temp agencies told us of their preference for
candidates who call frequently and are chatty on the phone.
The programs, particularly the non-profits, grill all of their graduates on these
attitudinal and interaction skills, as well as the expectations of the business culture.
instance, at his program, John heard himself on a tape recorder for the first time, and
felt like his voice was ‘too ghetto’. So now he makes a conscious effort to change the
way he talks.
Credentialing is another way to signal that you get it. Almost all of these programs
offer a certification, which beefs up the résumé for those without any degrees. As
Michelle found, ‘I said, okay, I’ve taken the A
class and the N
class, and I’ve achieved
5The extent of soft skills training varies across institutions, with almost all of the public and non-
profit respondents providing such training and just 90% of the private. For the most disadvantaged
jobseekers, the most critical will be personal presentation and motivation skills. Over two-thirds of
providers overall supply such training, but 90% of the non-profit institutions do.
560 Karen Chapple
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
one of the certifications and am working on the others, that was enough to get me in
the door for an interview’.
Providers show a lot of savvy about soft skills, from presentation skills to customer
service to familiarity with corporate culture. For instance, Per Scholas teaches
troubleshooting by sabotaging the students’ computers before they arrive for class. Street
Tech has students sign a code of conduct upon entering the program, including a pledge
to pay a $5 fee for each instance of tardiness. The growing creativity and sophistication
of these programs in providing soft skills suggests how important such training is in
facilitating access to IT jobs.
Are networks and networking skills enough to level the playing field for those without
any college? Not for everyone. Troy, who learned how to walk the walk at Training,
Inc., then says, ‘But then you’re out on your own, and you start feeling like you’re not
sharp enough. You get down on yourself, because you’re not sure you have what it takes.
When you look at the ads in the computer area, you realize that nothing at Training,
Inc. qualifies you for those jobs. They want you to know servers, networking’.
So networks and soft skills may not be enough for all of the ‘switched-off’. However,
this is, for the most part, a success story: it is possible to take someone with no college
education, give her three months of training in how to repair a computer, and place her
in a job making $20,000 a year via carefully cultivated networks with local employers.
Should she choose to return to college for a degree, the job may offer a career ladder.
Theorists argue that the advent of IT in our increasingly networked society has the
potential to worsen patterns of exclusion, because only the most fortunate can ‘switch
on’ to networks and obtain the human capital necessary to cross the digital divide. Yet,
the case of job training in IT shows that the assumptions underlying these arguments
may be untrue. Rather than being excluded from the network society, savvy non-profits
have organized their own networks with local employers and governments. Instead of
increasing the educational requirements of occupations, IT has resulted in the
downskilling of some technology occupations and a new emphasis on soft skills, which
intermediaries can quickly inculcate in their trainees. Thus, this study suggests that there
is latent potential to actualize networks, that there is a way to crack the code. In fact,
as interactive service occupations generally continue substituting soft for technical
skills, intermediaries may be able to place low-skilled jobseekers in a variety of
Arguably, the rapid expansion of the economy during the 1990s played a pivotal role
in making IT jobs more accessible to a broader array of jobseekers. Among the most
disadvantaged, the likelihood of getting a job is decreasing. One key factor is the new
geography of the IT industry, in particular the shift of jobs to India and China. Yet, there
is some suggestion that rather than moving the low-skill jobs to offshore locations,
businesses are increasingly shifting mid-level programming and software developer
positions because of the confluence of low labor costs and high human capital attainment
overseas. Because US wage levels are decreasing for some IT occupations, it is ironically
these more disadvantaged, relatively low-skilled workers, such as the minority and
female graduates of short-term training programs, that will be willing to fill vacant
positions in the US.
Will these labor market intermediaries survive under WIA? The dismantling of the
old job training system, which relied largely on contracts with politically connected non-
profits and colleges, was seen as a change that would better meet employer needs. It
promotes competition among public, non-profit and private training providers and
6Moss and Tilly (2001: 68–75) document the demand for increased soft skills across many different
occupations in four industries: auto parts manufacturing, retail, insurance, and the public sector.
Labor market intermediaries in the entry-level IT labor market 561
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
rewards based on performance, measured by placement. The idea is that the system will
reward the training providers that can connect their graduates to employers, and thus
will change the workforce development system to one that works better for employers
— one that is driven by demand rather than supply. The market will drive the system
because recipients will self-select into training programs in a ‘consumer choice’ model.
But in practice, several problems have emerged. There is no true competition among
different types of providers, since some are much better equipped than others: for
instance, understaffed non-profits find it much more difficult to do the paperwork to
qualify for government monies than do the large private chain providers. (For the most
part, charitable foundations, rather than government, funded the innovative non-profits
in this study.) Secondly, because consumer choice drives the system, it still reflects
demand poorly. Unemployed workers are more inclined to seek additional training in
their own field than to switch to demand occupations (Chapple, 2005).
Privatization has created an unlevel playing field for private, public and non-profit
training providers: proprietary trade schools can market their programs aggressively and
expand quickly to accommodate large numbers of students. At the same time, this study
suggests that public and non-profit providers have better connections to employers and
thus are better positioned to place the most disadvantaged graduates.
To connect the most disadvantaged workers, approaches like soft skills training,
employer involvement in training, internships and mentorships, and institutional
networks are critical. Yet, WIA’s performance-based measures focus on jobseeker
performance, e.g. placement, retention and wage progression, rather than such
qualitative programmatic aspects or measures of connectedness to the economy. In the
current WIA reauthorization in Congress, it will be important to develop new measures
of networking, support continued innovation in workforce development, and level the
playing field for non-profits. Save such reform, the many non-profit providers who have
found a way to ‘switch on’ the structurally irrelevant are likely to disappear.
Karen Chapple
(, Department of City and Regional Planning,
University of California at Berkeley, 228 Wurster Hall #1850, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
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Même si, depuis longtemps, les réseaux régissent les relations économiques, leur place
devient plus importante dans une économie fondée sur le savoir. Pourtant, l’absence de
réseaux sociaux et de capital humain provoque, selon certains auteurs, la ‘déconnexion’
permanente de plusieurs groupes ainsi écartés des réseaux de l’économie mondiale. Les
indices réunis ici montrent que, au contraire, il existe un potentiel d’accès au maillage
grâce à l’essor d’organismes en réseau au niveau des communautés et à une technologie
toujours plus accessible. Basée sur des enquêtes et des entretiens poussés auprès de
plus de 700 employés et prestataires de formation, ce travail présente comment les
‘déconnectés’ accèdent à des emplois informatiques, via un réseau de liens ainsi que
l’acquisition de compétences non-techniques ou d’aptitudes à la communication et à
l’interaction. Quoique les formateurs agissant dans les communautés soient les mieux
placés pour aider les demandeurs d’emploi défavorisés à entrer dans la société en
réseau, les évolutions qu’a connues le système américain de perfectionnement de la
population active sont en train d’accentuer l’exclusivité des réseaux au lieu de faciliter
cette mobilité ascendante.
... A few studies have looked beyond the IT sector [8][9] but more research is needed, especially on basic computer skills for basic and intermediate users (as opposed to specialists). In this space, NGOs are important but under-researched intermediaries that provide training, services, and connections to labor markets for disadvantaged populations worldwide [10] [11] [12][13] [14]. This research is intended to help fill these gaps. ...
... The framework builds upon our research with more than 70 NGOs that provide ICT training and other employment services primarily in disadvantaged settings in Asia 2 , Latin America 3 Europe 4 , and the United States 5 The paper focuses on NGOs because their role in workforce development is critical and often underappreciated. NGOs are increasingly important intermediaries that enhance labor market information, skills, and social connections for disadvantaged groups [10] [11]. Often they represent one of the only resources for these groups to improve their job prospects. ...
... NGOs are uniquely positioned to provide training and jobseeking assistance to people who face higher barriers to employment. As Chapple [10] [11] argues, "not-for-profit organizations that have the ability to connect [unemployed workers] to local industry and teach the skills and language of the 'switched on' are the most effective in helping disadvantaged groups enter the labor market" [10: 549]. These organizations offer access to training programs that are free or affordable in an environment that promotes lifelong learning. ...
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This article proposes an analytical framework to better understand the role that information and communication technology (ICT) skills play in improving employment opportunities for low-income groups. The paper draws upon research with over seventy non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide ICT training and other employment services in 30 countries around the world. It explores the linkage between ICT skills and employability on three levels: NGO program design, characteristics of individual job seekers or trainees, and environmental dynamics that influence employment outcomes. The researchers argue that basic ICT skills are often important, but are usually insufficient for members of disadvantaged groups to improve their employment situation. The proposed multilevel framework identifies some of the common elements that help situate basic ICT skills in relation to other factors that can facilitate or impede employability.
... Studies have also found that for members of disadvantaged communities, social networks that can enhance employability are sometimes shallow and narrow because acquaintances and contacts may lack jobs altogether, or hold jobs that are transitory or dead-end, thus providing limited bridges to jobs or mobility (Smith and Neuwirth 2008). Other work, including Chapple's (2006) study of disadvantaged, entry level information technology workers, demonstrates that networks are crucial for conveying information about soft skills such as communication and interaction capacities which are crucial for employability. Yet even when young people do have access to networks, they may be reluctant to use them. ...
... [construction, male, 21] The ability to leverage assistance and support from social networks and personal contacts was discussed as an important means through which to enhance employability. This is consistent with the literature on the importance of formal and informal networks in surviving unemployment and finding employment (Saunders and Wong 2009) and for developing appropriate soft skills such as communication and interaction capacities (Chapple 2006). Participants described opportunities provided by, for example, 'uncles who are builders', and 'my cousin's boss', in facilitating access to work. ...
Research focusing on young people’s career trajectories has emphasised ‘graduate employability’ with much less attention being afforded to the employability strategies used by disadvantaged youth, including the social, political and labour market contexts in which these emerge. This study explores how young people enrolled in entry-level, vocational training courses in Australia attempt to enhance their employability. Interviews explored perceptions of individual employability, the strategies utilised to improve employability, and the economic, personal and employment consequences of these strategies. Three main employability strategies were identified: gaining qualifications to meet employment expectations; securing work experience in a competitive labour market; and addressing economic and social challenges to secure and sustain employment. The study reveals how the dominant narratives of employability in education and employment policy are misaligned with the economic, social and labour market challenges faced by disadvantaged job-seekers with respect to notions of career and ‘fit’ between the individual and the labour market. Policy responses need to take account of the diverse ‘bottom up’ experiences and circumstances of different cohorts of young people.
... Since the 1980s, the term employability has largely referred to the understanding articulated by Kanter (1995), where individuals actively accumulate human, cultural, and social capital to maintain and find employment in today's unstable economy (Beck, 2000;Kanter, 1995;Lippman, 2008;Smith, 2010), or what Gazier (2001) would term 'initiative employability' (Chertkovskaya et al., 2013). These employability activities include undergoing training and acquiring skills and credentials (Adams and Demaiter, 2008;Kalleberg, 2011), identity work (Chapple, 2006;Sharone, 2007;Ybema et al., 2009), and networking and unpaid labor, such as volunteering or internships (Edgerton and Mullan, 2008;Taylor, 2004). ...
In today’s unstable and uncertain economy, middle-class and professional workers are expected to participate in employability activities, such as ongoing higher education and obtaining additional credentials. These activities are expected by employers, protect workers against layoff, and help to advance workers’ careers. In this article, we argue that the expectations of employability are increasingly being placed on lower-level workers by their employers, in partnership with educational institutions. We draw on 20 case studies of career development programs in a variety of health care settings across the United States. We found that through the development (and requirement) of credentials and partnerships with educational institutions, employers encouraged low-level employees to be continually considering their employability and career pathways. However, while the career development programs in our sample use many of the same employability practices seen among middle-class and professional workers, there were often minimal financial or educational rewards for low-level workers. Career programs that focused on established credentials (e.g. surgical technicians, registered nurses), though, were able to provide substantial upward social mobility for workers.
... Private sector intermediaries engage in the sort of advocacy and organising once associated with non-profit organisations known for social innovation or social entrepreneurship. This variation and the complexity of its implications first appeared in the careful documentation of labour market intermediaries in the economic development literature, however, that research has subsequently extended to innovation intermediaries and 'supply-chain' intermediaries (Benner et al., 2007;Chapple, 2006b;Doussard, 2013;Treado and Giarratani, 2008). The following sections describe the variation in these three categories of regional intermediaries and why they matter in the resurgence in manufacturing. ...
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... iii A focus on regional labor markets has the potential to create a link between the job access and skill acquisition concerns raised in DR and the demand-oriented, firmcentered priorities of IR. A recent body of research examines these complex intersections between economic development and community development approaches to labor market intermediaries and job matching in an environment characterized by significant work reorganization and a "new psychological contract" (Theodore and Peck 2002;Benner 2003;Stone 2004;Van Jaarsveld 2004;Chapple 2006). ...
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Economic opportunity in the 21st century privileges people and places with the “right mix” of human capital to develop and apply digital technologies, and disadvantages those without. Increasing socio-technical, socio-economic, and socio-spatial polarization underscores inclusion as a critically important dimension of innovation. Workforce development and entrepreneurial ecosystems each have implications for “inclusive innovation” in restructuring cities, but understanding their realistic prospects requires attention to local institutional capacity as well as the broader multilevel policy contexts in which they operate. This study compares inclusive innovation programs in Saint-Etienne, France and Greensboro North Carolina, two mid-sized restructuring cities operating in two different macro-institutional settings. Highly variable but not entirely idiosyncratic dynamics emerge in each case; inclusive innovation is integral in Saint Etienne and incidental in Greensboro but not a resounding success in either city. “Top-down” and “bottom-up” dynamics interact in different ways to shape outcomes, but power matters most for local policy choice. The decisive factor is explicit linkage to a commonly accepted urban development agenda that is supported politically by local government. Intermediary organizations lack influence, and the private sector is disengaged. These findings suggest the need to rethink assumptions about the actor configurations that determine urban development priorities.
Sub-baccalaureate degrees represent a growing and distinctive sector of American higher education. However, policymakers and community colleges lack a clear understanding of the specific competencies learned in these programs that are useful in graduates’ careers. In particular, they overlook non-academic skills. This study uses qualitative interviews with sub-baccalaureate degree alumni (n = 98) to elucidate graduates’ perspectives on the range of competencies learned in sub-baccalaureate degree programs. Graduates reported learning several competencies that remained salient in the long term: cognitive processes and strategies, content knowledge, work ethic, self-efficacy, teamwork, and professional skills. In addition, this study analyzes whether disadvantaged students were more likely to report learning certain competencies. By describing a fuller range of valuable non-academic competencies, as well as how different student populations may vary in learning these competencies, this study contributes to a better understanding of sub-baccalaureate degrees’ value. These findings also provide insight for community college faculty, administrators, and/or policymakers seeking to build sub-baccalaureate programs that better prepare students for career success.
In recent years, the field of workforce development has emerged as a distinct area of policy and practice. While planning scholars have begun to engage with the workforce development field, its relevance and points of connection to planning scholarship remain underexplored. This article attempts to define the workforce development field by articulating its core concerns as well as its domains of practice and scholarship outside the planning field. The article locates workforce development within three stands of planning scholarship, concluding that workforce development represents an important bridge for planners between "place" and "people" prosperity within communities.
Recent data suggest that the digital divide between White and minority youth persists, particularly in terms of home access to computers and the Internet. Community technology centers (CTCs) are an important alterative access point, especially for low-income youth of color. Such institutions, however, do much more, providing not just access, but general youth development, including the opportunity for youth to voice their stories, contribute to community-building, and expand networks. The authors use qualitative data collected at five CTCs nationwide to examine the ways that youth engage in CTCs and link these activities to a youth development framework.The authors draw lessons for future CTC practice, highlighting the importance of both bonding and bridging social capital in thinking through future programming.
Is the United States justified in seeing itself as a meritocracy, where stark inequalities in pay and employment reflect differences in skills, education,and effort? Or does racial discrimination still permeate the labor market, resulting in the systematic under hiring and underpaying of racial minorities, regardless of merit? Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s African Americans have lost ground to whites in the labor market, but this widening racial inequality is most often attributed to economic restructuring, not the racial attitudes of employers. It is argued that the educational gap between blacks and whites, though narrowing, carries greater penalties now that we are living in an era of global trade and technological change that favors highly educated workers and displaces the low-skilled. Stories Employers Tell demonstrates that this conventional wisdom is incomplete. Racial discrimination is still a fundamental part of the explanation of labor market disadvantage. Drawing upon a wide-ranging survey of employers in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles, Moss and Tilly investigate the types of jobs employers offer, the skills required, and the recruitment, screening and hiring procedures used to fill them. The authors then follow up in greater depth on selected employers to explore the attitudes, motivations, and rationale underlying their hiring decisions, as well as decisions about where to locate a business. Moss and Tilly show how an employer's perception of the merit or suitability of a candidate is often colored by racial stereotypes and culture-bound expectations. The rising demand for soft skills, such as communication skills and people skills, opens the door to discrimination that is rarely overt, or even conscious, but is nonetheless damaging to the prospects of minority candidates and particularly difficult to police. Some employers expressed a concern to race-match employees with the customers they are likely to be dealing with. As more jobs require direct interaction with the public, race has become increasingly important in determining labor market fortunes. Frequently, employers also take into account the racial make-up of neighborhoods when deciding where to locate their businesses. Ultimately, it is the hiring decisions of employers that determine whether today's labor market reflects merit or prejudice. This book, the result of years of careful research, offers us a rare opportunity to view the issue of discrimination through the employers' eyes.
Two recent trends have rekindled interest in questions about the impact of technological change on the skills that workers use at their jobs and the wages these skills command. The first is the increase in education-related earnings inequality. Between 1980 and 1998 the college-high school wage differential rose from 48 to 75 percentage points, a 56 percent gain. The second trend is the remarkable proliferation of computers and information technology. After the spread of mainframe applications during the 1970s, the use of personal computers increased dramatically in the 1980s, followed by enormous growth in applications of networked computers in the 1990s. The coincidence of these trends has led many economists to hypothesize that computer-based technological changes have contributed to the worsening economic prospects (both relative and absolute) of workers with little formal education. Skill-biased technological change may occur by substituting computer-driven machinery for less-educated workers in the performance of some tasks and by complementing more educated workers in the performance of other tasks. Many sociologists see the economists' argument as unduly deterministic. Based on analyses of case studies, they argue that equating computers with skill-biased technical change ignores management's role in job and organizational design and relies on simplistic definitions of skill. In this chapter, we offer a potential reconciliation of these positions. We present a verbal model of the types of tasks that computers are suited to perform and describe the implications of the model for the changing task content of jobs performed by humans. We then offer aggregate evidence from the period 1960 to 1998 that supports the model and its implications. We next review the limitations of this type of economic framework that are frequently underscored by sociologists-in particular a vague definition of "skill" and an excessive technological determinism. We attempt to show how the economic and sociological viewpoints can be reconciled. As our task framework emphasizes, computers are not in all respects "skill-biased"; rather, their specific capabilities and limitations cut across many definitions of skill. Nor does our framework imply that the process of computerization fully determines the structure of work organization. A key insight of our approach is that while economic incentives generated by computerization have predictable and important impacts on the set of tasks that workers perform, work task content is not entirely synonymous with the organization of jobs. Managers may have considerable discretion-at least in the short run-in bundling tasks into jobs with attendant impacts on skill demands. We show how this composite model of "technological task determinism" and managerial discretion over task organization helps to interpret the impact of the introduction of digital check imaging on the organization of jobs and skill demands in two back office departments of a large bank. The introduction of check imaging led to the computerization of certain tasks in both departments. The reorganization of the remaining tasks differed across the two departments, however, yielding qualitatively different impacts on the types of skills demanded.
Using data from a multi-city survey of urban inequality, we assess the effects of bridging social networks-ties that connect individuals to different worlds of information, resources, and opportunities-on Black, Hispanic, and White female labor-force participation in metropolitan Los Angeles. Our findings indicate that these types of networks are far more important in explaining the labor-market experiences of females in Los Angeles than the kinds of cultural forces that serve as the foundation of much contemporary conservative social policy making in the United States. Implications for current efforts to transition women from welfare to work are discussed.
This qualitative study compared the availability of, access to, and use of new technologies in a group of low– and high–socioeconomic status (SES) California high schools. Although student-computer ratios in the schools were similar, the social contexts of computer use differed, with low-SES schools affected by uneven human support networks, irregular home access to computers by students, and pressure to raise school test scores while addressing the needs of large numbers of English learners. These differences were expressed within three main patterns of technology access and use, labeled performativity, workability, and complexity, each of which shaped schools’ efforts to deploy new technologies for academic preparation.