Digital Dividends 

Technology nerds can come from any walk of life: Just ask Street Tech, which trains "at-risk" IT guys. Plus, the week's blog highlights.

IT Guyz 'N the Hood: A few years ago, Oakland's Rashaad Johnson, now 31, was working for a moving company. Like many of his co-workers, he drank heavily and used drugs. One day he got into a fight that left him seriously injured and nearly cost him his life. It ended up saving him, he says. It "made me really start to think about my life," Johnson recalls. "Why am I running around the streets?"

At his wife's urging, he contacted Street Tech, a San Pablo nonprofit that trains the working poor and "at-risk" people for careers in information technology. Johnson knew nothing about computers when he started, he says. Today he works at the help desk in the IT department of the Hayward branch of Mervyns, earning about $20 an hour.

Since its founding in 1999, Street Tech has offered perhaps the only affordable chance at a career for about four hundred Bay Area residents who would otherwise have been trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide. "It's not that people aren't capable; it's that they don't think they're capable a lot of times, or they don't get a chance," says executive director Barrie Hathaway.

The nonprofit teaches certification courses in computer repair and maintenance, as well as professional skills such as business etiquette and résumé building. A 22-week certification class runs $2,095, but nearly all of the students receive partial scholarships, Hathaway says.

To take part, students must either live in a low-to-moderate-income household — $64,100 or less for a family of four, according to Street Tech — or be considered "at risk," which could include "involvement in the juvenile and/or adult justice system, a record of drug or alcohol abuse, single parents on public assistance, or current residence in high-crime, low-income neighborhoods."

According to Street Tech, about 75 percent of those entering its program are unemployed. But roughly 92 percent of last year's graduates found jobs. Vee Chick, a Street Tech board member and senior IT project manager at Sybase, helped Johnson score an entry-level help-desk position at Sybase after graduation. "He had a few things to learn, but he was quite willing to learn new things," Chick says. "He was very polished, very sure of himself, very soft-spoken and dignified. I was so impressed with his behavior and customer service."

The dot-com bust dealt a serious blow to the IT field, and Street Tech faced decreased enrollment and funding. Fewer jobs meant IT training no longer guaranteed a decent wage, and the nonprofit's foundation sponsors tightened their grants. So two and a half years ago, Street Tech launched ReliaTech, a business that fixes computers and networks, and not only gives the students some real-world training, but is poised to help keep the nonprofit afloat.

The IT industry hasn't yet fully bounced back — Johnson, in fact, lost his Sybase gig after the company hired cheaper workers abroad — but a recent survey by the Bay Area Council suggests that more chief executives are planning to hire local workers than at any time since 2001.

Now, Hathaway says, it's a matter of getting the message out to potential students that IT is viable again. One person who doesn't need convincing is Rashaad Johnson. "I can't imagine that people aren't just knocking their doors down trying to get in," he says. "It should be full with students. It's a hell of a program. It's almost free compared to what you would get going to any other school. It's somewhere I can call home." — Kathleen Richards

92510, Last Week's Highlights: All of our needy blogger ferrets have been working hard for the past seven days to inform and entertain you at 92510, our recently launched blog. There were plenty of pre-election shenanigans, of course. Robert Gammon broke stories about impending layoffs at major Bay Area newspapers, as well as the Oakland Tribune's plans to leave the Tribune Tower and flee the city's downtown. Will Harper scooped rival publications with the story of a Berkeley councilwoman's hubby getting arrested for battery on a meter maid. Staff restaurant critic John Birdsall summed up the week's Bay Area food coverage in his Grease Trap column. Chris Thompson introduced us to a, er, positive Pleasanton rapper named White Mike. We also announced Buy Curious, a new weekly online shopping column by Lauren Gard and Kathleen Richards. Meanwhile, a Cal student conservative was aghast because Barbara Lee's servers kept bouncing his e-mail. And some Grinch, ostensibly an Oakland Public Works employee, threatened to steal toddler toys from a neighborhood park.

Dear readers, we're gonna pester you until you get addicted to our blog, so you might as well go there right now. — Michael Mechanic

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