Friday, August 14, 2009

Basic ICT skills training | only one piece of the puzzle for employment

There are a wide variety of factors that affect the employment opportunities of low-skilled and unemployed groups. As I discussed in a previous blog, trying to map all these factors is fruitless since it is very difficult to pin point what factor - or combination of factors - was more influential for achieving positive employment outcomes and the extent to which the experience of one individual can be extrapolated to represent an entire group.

For the research conducted in Washington State, we wanted to know specifically the contribution of ICT skills training program to promote employment outcomes. However, since ICT skills training is one of many employment-related training and services that workforce organizations provide, it is necessary to expand a bit the array of variables to paint a more comprehensive picture of the contribution of these programs to employment outcomes. In few words, we need to put the contribution of ICT skills training to employability in perspective.

NGOs and public agencies working on workforce development usually provide a wide array of services and types of training to up-skill and/or re-skill unemployed groups. The basket of services these organizations provide depend on the target group they work with, the resources available, the organizations' social mission, the locality, and the barriers to employment that their beneficiaries face, to name a few. For example, an NGO that serves immigrant communities would have a bigger emphasis on language training, appropriate housing, cultural integration, etc., than an organization that works with dislocated workers laid off because of the closure of a local manufacturing plant.

The different methods and channels used to provide the training and services also vary across organizations. In my experience working with organizations in Washington State, I found three somewhat distinct types of service-provision:

  1. Organizations that provide all the training and services in-house
  2. Organizations that function as intermediaries or referrals for unemployed individuals and provide bridges to partners for different types of training and services
  3. Organizations that provide some training in-house and partner with other organizations to expand the basket of services available for their beneficiaries

The types of service provision are not always so clear cut. In many instances, organizations that provide all the training and services in-house look for partnerships with Community Colleges, for example, to provide longer term career paths to unemployed individuals. Regardless of the methods and channels used, there are certain employment-training and services that are available across all the organizations. Basic adult education, basic ICT skills training, job search tools and online applications, preparation of CVs and interviews, language training, industry-specific training (welding, office assistant, bank teller, etc), and different ways for connecting to employers are among the most commonly available.

Although employment outcomes are not only determined by the types of services and training available, it is important to understand that regardless of the mission, target group, and partners all the organizations interviewed for this study recognized that ICT skills training, albeit crucial, is only one piece of the puzzle to improve the opportunities for low-skilled, older workers, and long-term unemployed individuals in today's labor market. There is no techno-centric approach to employability among these organizations in Washington State and that is a fact.

Friday, August 7, 2009

ICT skills training and employment outcomes in Washington State | A brief note on the methodology

A couple of blogs ago, I briefly described the project we are working on in Washington State. We surveyed people who participated in ICT skills training between 2007-2008 at the organizations we selected in Washington State (NGOs, One-Stop shops, and Community Colleges). In total, we have 464 people in our sample representing five metropolitan areas in the State: Seattle, Spokane, Bellingham, Mount Vernon, and to a lesser extent Tacoma. Most of the people who responded to our survey have a high school diploma (42%), the rest continued to either 2 year (26%) or 4 year college (22%). The vast majority are women with an average age of 48 years old.

As in any other research, there are many limitations in this study that are worth discussing even if briefly. In the spirit of transparency and open research, the main limitations follow:
  • The sample is not representative of the population in Washington State nor it represents the universe of people that benefit from the services provided at these organizations
  • The ICT skills training, although basic, is designed and implemented in different ways and it varies in lenght, content, and teaching/learning approach.
  • People were asked in the survey to self-assess their ICT skills level
  • The motivations of trainees are very different (some enroll in the training by choice, others are required due to unemployment insurance benefits)
With this in mind, we confront the first research question head on: Did ICT skills training improve the employment opportunities of the people in our study? Did they find employment after the training, and if so, what can help us explain this positive outcome?

Where is all the hype about ICT skills and employability coming from? | or setting up the context

All the hype is coming from a trend researchers labeled "skilled-biased technological change". This trend, they argue, is being fueled by the increased diffusion of ICT across economic sectors combined with changes at the organizational level. This techno organizational changes are increasing the complexity of jobs, and thus, placing new demands in workers skills. Under this framework, low-skilled workers are in danger of been "crowded-out" of the labor market or trapped in dead end and low wage jobs since they do not have the skills required to perform under this new workplace environment*.

The penetration of ICT in a variety of economic activities is not only cutting across sectors, but also, across different types of jobs. Once, those basic ICT skills commonly assumed to be an entry ticket for getting a job in IT-intensive industries today they are becoming increasingly important for traditional sectors such as agriculture, construction, micro-entrepreneurship, to name a few. This trend is not only visible across sectors, but also across business hierarchies and different types of job positions. In many countries, particularly developed but increasingly in developing ones, ICT-related occupations represent twenty to thirty percent of the total national employment share with ICT specialists accounting for three to four percent, and jobs requiring basic ICT skills accounting for the rest**.

In addition to ICT, there are different skills required for the labor market today. Communication skills, team work, collaboration, critical thinking, decision-making, social skills, are among the skills most often mentioned by employers. However, in this basket of skills ICT skills play a unique role and it is worth discussing. ICT skills are not only valuable as a skills on their own right - you know the basics of how to operate a computer, some software, and perhaps some office applications - but also as catalyst to improve or further develop the other skills mentioned above.

Are ICT skills more important than the other skills? It really depends on the job requirements, depends on how basic are the computer skills of the individual, and depends on who do you compete with when looking for a job. So, ICT skills are one among many skills that is clear! Are basic ICT skills relevant for employability? Absolutely but we can't isolate the contribution of these skills from other confounding factors that determine the ability of a person to find a job. Previous job experience, portability of your skill-set, demands for your skill-set in the labor market, the availability of affordable training to improve your skill-set, personal context, all play a role. But it is futile to try to paint a fully comprehensive picture of what helped an individual to find a job. Too many variables and very difficult to generalize.

A more val
uable intellectual exercise is to eat the pie piece by piece with the caveats that this approach may generate. So we start with the first piece of pie: ICT skills training and employment. Employment (binary, you are employed or unemployed) is not the same as Employability (a process)

* See for further elaboration: de Grip & Zwick (2005) "The employability of low-skilled workers in the knowledge economy"
** See OECD Information Technology Report (2006)

So, do low-skilled workers can improve their employability with ICT skills training?

I haven't blogged in a long time and I must admit I miss it dearly. Blogging helps me to articulate thoughts as the research process evolves and it is a great exercise to confront my own intellectual bottlenecks. I stopped blogging for reasons I can't explain and I profoundly regret it now that I am trying to articulate the findings of a research project that is as we speak in deadline crisis mode. So here I am again...

In September last year, we started a research project in Washington State working with organizations that provide ICT skills training and other employment-related services to help low-income, low-skilled, and unemployed people improve their employment opportunities in the labor market. We were interested in exploring three particular research questions:
  • Do ICT skills training improve employment opportunities for these groups?
  • Do ICT skills and use of ICT at work has an effect on wages for those employed after the training?
  • Are there any aspirational benefits that contribute to employment outcomes?
Three type of organizations participated in the study: 1) Non-governmental organizations; 2) One-stop shops which are financed with state and federal government resources; and 3) Community Colleges. In total, we had 16 organizations in 6 metropolitan areas of the State. We surveyed the trainees that participated in ICT skills training at these organizations between 2007 and 2008. We sent 5000 surveys and received 454 responses back (around 13% response rate considering those surveys returned to addressee).

In the next series of blogs I'll try to articulate the findings of the study and confront through this some of the roadblocks that are getting me stocked and my own internal intellectual struggle to move this project forward

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Breaking the silence | Time to keep blogging

I am back to this blogging business after more than a month of inactivity in my publishing space. Many things have happened during the last six months; all interesting, all inspiring, all part of a very cool learning process. I just needed some time to reflect on these experiences and the learnings they brought with them and that will shape the ones to come.

This reflexivity moment also allowed me to deal with bureaucratic processes that I had just plainly ignored in the last months: getting my travel to Poland and Latvia reimbursed, dealing with my US working visa, and planning for the work for next year.

Back in action now! Glad it is over, but I must admit that I enjoyed having a bit of time to pause and digest everything I've learned in the last year.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Lessons from Riga | Networks are about personal relations and trust

There are so many interesting things that happened during these two days of the Telecenters Forum... many lessons and ways for the network to move forward. The most relevant learning I am taking with me back to Seattle is that networks are about people who care for each other personally, first and foremost.

It is difficult to convey in few words how relevant this lesson is. Networks, as a form of organization
, do not provide much value if personal relations, trust, and care for each other at a more deeper level is not present in a group. During these two days became very evident that we see value on a European network because the people who are part of it at this stage care for each other as individuals first, and community leaders and e-inclusion advocates second.

For networks to be valuable there needs to be a commitment to put that bit of extra effort, extra hours of work to share, learn, and take advantage of each other's experiences. All of that exist simply because we consider each other friends and care about each other's work. Competition is not a word that you will find in this group, and I am very happy to see that.

From Barcelona, to Riga, to wherever else this initiative takes us we must have this lesson very present: we are friends, we trust each other, and we want each other's project to succeed just as our own.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Telecenter Leaders Forum in Riga | building a network for collaboration in Europe

My work has brought me once again to this wonderful city for a gathering of Telecenter leaders representing almost every country in the European Union + some others. The effort to bring together organizations from around the EU working on e-inclusion programs started last year in Barcelona. In this second meeting of this nascent EU telecenters network these organizations will discuss ways to strengthen collaboration, establish venues to learn from each other, and find a common voice to promote this programs among governments and the private sector.

60 people, 43 organizations representing 23 countries from the European Union + 3 North American + 2 Mexicans. Old friends, new friends, all together discussing for two days the opportunities for collaboration and networking. With Riga as the setting... what else could we ask for!!