Washington, D.C.’s tech-market is growing – and job-seekers are watchful. Mayor Vincent Gray’s recent groundbreaking for the $25 million broadband expansion in Wards 5, 7 and 8 has been one major step this year to close the digital divide. The new DC Community Access Network (DC-CAN) will reach clinics, community centers, and other digitally disconnected entities.

But the development—in addition to expanding access to the Internet—may also be the means for job-seekers in those same disadvantaged communities to shake off their financial woes and gain meaningful employment. And Byte Back, a community-based nonprofit, is helping to prepare them for those opportunities by offering training in the IT and computer fields.

This month, the organization produced 80 graduates – the biggest class since its 1997 inception.

“It’s almost completely impossible to apply for a job now if you don’t know anything about computers,” said Kelly Ellsworth, executive director of the Northeast D.C. organization. “Five years ago, you could survive without knowing how to use a computer and now you can.”

And those who are trained in IT and computer skills tend to thrive. The job outlook for a computer support specialist this year, will “increase faster than average,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment in the industry is expected to jump 14 percent from 2008 to 2018, more rapidly than the average of all occupations examined by the agency.

The organization offers low-income Washingtonians to be part of that jobs revolution. Its students are immersed in two programs: CompTIA A+ program in IT support and the Microsoft training program.

Students meet, at most, three times a week for three months, Ellsworth said. At the end of the program, some trainees receive IT certification, contingent upon passing a test, along with a refurbished computer and free Internet service for a year with Cricket Communications. Ellsworth said the average wage for graduates is $11.75 per hour with a 17 percent salary raise for those who enrolled in the program seeking more training.

The organization’s fast-growing success—for every $100 spent on a student, there was an average $1,082 increase in that student’s earnings—has appealed to high-ranking officials, including FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the keynote speaker for the graduation on April 1, and D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas, D-Ward 5.

“We have the ability to invest and improve our communities,” Clyburn said to the graduates. “Today you are better tooled to do that, and tomorrow let’s continue to do that for the uplift of us all.”

And Byte Back’s success is also appealing to area residents. Ellsworth said enrollment swelled in a span of nearly three years. “We have had to increase dramatically,” she said, noting the enrollment of 333 graduates in 2008 compared to 2010’s graduation of 1,037 students. “We have more students, we have more volunteers, we have more partner sites.”

According to a recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, D.C. has the lowest recorded unemployment rate at 6.2 percent, with an increase of 74,600 jobs in 2010. But in historically indigent communities such as those in Ward 8—where joblessness remains disproportionately high—programs like Byte Back are much needed. The program mostly serves unemployed African Americans, primarily women.

The organization recently received a $551,000 grant to teach 1,600 students for the next two years. And, anyone can apply for the free classes, taught at four local libraries, as long as they meet the low-income eligibility. Applicants do not need to have a high school diploma or college degree. Nor do they need to have the same goals.

Some Byte Back graduates, such as Andrena McGriggs, 64, are older, and simply want to catch up with the fast-paced digital world. For McGriggs, her enrollment in the Microsoft Office class had a deeper meaning.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she decided to get her GED at Springard High School and in order to receive credit she had to enroll in Byte Back. Both, she said, are critical to her financial expansion.

“I just want to advance myself—god forbid something happens,” she said. “I’m trying to get in my own business … trying to be more advanced because of the modern technology.” McGriggs is currently applying to an advanced course Byte Back offers.

Nathan Rones, 40, a recent graduate, enrolled in the A+ program to acquire certification. With some college education under his belt and a desire to advance his career, Rones said the class was the assurance he needed to pursue his real passion, IT. “They really turned me around,” he said. “My parents died … I’ve been through a lot and now I have the confidence. With Byte Back, I can go into any job.”

Byte Back will host a Community Computer Day on May 7, offering free computer workshops. For more information about the event and the organization, go to www.byteback.org.

Erica Butler

AFRO Staff Writer