Jumping the technology gap brings big rewards

They are performing spectacular leaps across the "technology gap" - city homeless who boast an e-mail address; a minimum-wage earner who, after learning computer software in a matter of months, brings home $30 an hour as a software trainer.

Although the gulf in opportunity between computer haves and have-nots is wide, the sheer demand for information technology has narrowed the inequality in skills and wages, experts say.

Consider these numbers from the World Information Technology and Services Alliance in Vienna, Va.:

*Global spending in information and communications technology rose 40 percent from 1992 to 1997.

*Such spending has swelled in every economy worldwide despite differences in gross domestic product, population growth rates, and other traditional gauges of prosperity.

*More than 50 million people are added to the global communications network every year.

The fact that Microsoft has replaced General Electric as the biggest company in the US stock market proves the prominence of the information and communications technology sector in the global economy, says a recent alliance report.

The grass-roots numbers look just as impressive. By most measures, information technology is the most promising field for a job seeker, with hundreds of thousands of positions opening in the next few years.

"That's where the labor supply bottleneck is," says Gordon Richards, economist at the National Association of Manufacturers.

Indeed, many low-income workers who seize on new computer training can leap-frog up income levels.

"Some people get really excited about the opportunities and money they can make," says Kevin Carpenter, computer trainer at the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization in Washington.

Mr. Carpenter says his neighborhood program cannot meet the demand for its computer courses.

At the Martin Luther King Library in Washington, D.C., free computer courses fill up right away, says Michele Speck, program coordinator.

Even if it doesn't lead to a high-tech job, computer training is invaluable as a confidence builder and employment tool. And literacy classes increasingly rely on computers. "Computer and language literacy go hand in hand," says Phil Shapiro, director of the Community Technology Centers Network here. "There is a huge benefit to doing the two concurrently."

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