Job experience only goes so far for those who lack computer skills.
Claudette Henderson has 20 years of medical experience, including work as a certified nursing assistant, supply technician, surgical specialist and orthopedic care specialist. But her computer competency is limited, which makes it difficult for her to re-enter the workforce.
Over the past two years, the public housing resident has been in and out of work doing jobs such as cooking for a fraternity house and janitorial services.
“I have been to a lot of interviews. One was for a food service job at the VA hospital, but you have to be able to use a computer,” she said. “I’m 53, I’m healthy and I’m vital enough to be in the workforce. I should be in the workforce.”
Henderson is one of many in public housing whose computer skills limit her job choices.
The Columbia Housing Authority recently applied for two grants that total $1.23 million to provide computer and broadband education, training and equipment to their public housing residents and fund wireless for all 794 housing units.
Only 5 percent of Columbia’s public housing residents have access to broadband Internet, and the percentage of those who can successfully operate a computer is only slightly higher, according to data collected by the Columbia Housing Authority.
The computer-user statistics are significantly below the 2008 national U.S. figures, which show that 73 percent of adults are computer users and 55 percent have broadband technology in their home.
Phil Steinhaus, CEO of the Housing Authority, hopes to provide computer access and training for the estimated 1,100 public housing residents by upgrading the three existing computer labs in J.W. “Blind” Boone Community Center, Paquin Tower and Oak Towers and installing three additional computer centers in the Bear Creek, Lincoln-Unity and Bear Creek Community Center laundry facilities.
Additional equipment would place computer literacy centers within a one city block radius of 75 percent of public housing units, and the remaining 25 percent would be within a three block radius, Steinhaus said.
“By placing a center in proximity of each resident, it makes access easier, and increases the frequency of use. That’s when you really start developing computer skills,” Steinhaus said.
A computer literacy coordinator would offer computer training courses available to all residents in the six computer labs. With all computers running on a XenDesktop System, video-on-demand would be provided to inform public housing residents about computer functions, health education, parenting and job education programs via online tutorials.
While additional computer equipment is key to providing immediate computer and broadband access, Moving Ahead Coordinator Christina Martinez sees the training as beneficial. Moving Ahead is an after school organization held at the Blind Boone center, and Martinez is in the computer lab for several hours each Monday through Friday.
“I only see a handful of residents in the Blind Boone computer center because many of them don’t know how to use a computer. There was a woman applying for a post office position, and she had a lot of questions about using the computer and finding information,” Martinez said.
Henderson said she hasn't used the computers because she doesn't know how, "but if they started having computer classes I would be the first in line.”
A second grant would be used to continue the computer literacy program, provide free wireless Internet to all pubic housing residents and furnish 60 percent of the public homes with laptops.
Steinhaus said that only residents who complete a 10-week computer class would be eligible to borrow one of the 429 laptops for at-home use.
Lynette Nickleberry, a graduate instructor teaching a black families course at the University of Missouri, said the grants would help students with their school work. "Plenty of research shows kids do better in school if they have access to the Internet and word processor on a home computer,” she said. “Having that exposure helps kids feel comfortable about going into college and the workforce.”
The broadband technology grants are part of the economic stimulus package, and $4.7 billion has been earmarked for the program.
Nationwide, 2,200 organizations have put in requests that total $28 billion. The money will be awarded towards the end of the month. If the grants come through, the projects would be completed in two years.
“We are trying to extend broadband capacity to people who don’t have access because the technology gap creates a barrier when trying to break the cycle of poverty,” he said. “How would you like it if you had to complete a school project with no Internet access at home?”