A chance to make IT pay
Dingle, in Liverpool, includes some of the UK's worst social deprivation. Almost one in five local people is unemployed, and almost one in two is unskilled or semi-skilled. In an age when information technology is not only replacing jobs but defining them, the people of Dingle risk being left behind.
Some local people argue that successive development and training programmes have ignored Dingle or failed to motivate its residents. The result is an employment backwater where young people become cynical and leave school lacking the attitude and skills needed for the world of work.
Many school leavers have low educational performance. A 1994 survey showed that only one per cent of them took part in government training programmes.
But a locally-run programme could change the picture. Dingle Opportunities is designed as a one-stop shop, offering guidance, training support and employment-related services on the high street. The organisation was set up in 1994, with funding from the European Commission and local and national Government.
"If your address has a Liverpool 8 postcode - Toxteth - you'll find it hard to get a job," says Steve McGrath, director of Dingle Opportunities. He believes possession of IT skills greatly increases the chance of gaining employment, which is why the scheme offers residents access to IT on a formal and an informal, drop-in basis.
Mr McGrath is keen to see IT branch out into the local community. His plan for a local intranet (a local network based on Internet technology) would give people access to IT through such places as the local library and community centre.
Local residents could use electronic mail for communication, and even store their CVs on the network. Someone applying for a job could type in a letter of application and print it out with a CV. A network linking 15 primary schools in the Toxteth district is also planned. "It's important to take the technology out to the local people," says Mr McGrath, "otherwise the superhighway will go past them. If you're disenfranchised to start with, technology will make things worse."
Large numbers of IT-related jobs are coming to Liverpool, but few go to local people, says Roy Sheriff, Dingle Opportunities' training development manager. "There's a buzz about IT, but many companies bring their own staff or are supplied from countries where labour is cheaper. Local people aren't competing just against each other - they're up against workers in places such as Delhi."
Mr Sheriff says Dingle Opportunities has deliberately "kept away from Training and Enterprise Council funding". He says: "The TEC's focus is on achieving National Vocational Qualification targets, not meeting individual or companies' needs. Our training is directed towards getting people jobs and putting them into business."
The project's Dingle Telematics programme involves teaching its clients how to use authoring and multimedia tools. Dingle Opportunities is producing a customised literacy CD-Rom developed by Cambridge Training and Development (CTAD). It will feature local actors, issues and images.
About 15 people, aged 18 to 26, are on the Telematics programme. The plan is to spin the group off as a separate business next year, with a focus on developing Web pages for the Internet. Dingle Opportunities is also developing its own Web site.
The IT course is run by Wayne Jonas, a local inventor and entrepreneur. Mr Jonas believes in "throwing them in at the deep end". The first lesson involves building a computer. This not only saves money but, as Mr Jonas puts it: "It makes people see that the PC is not a mystical box."
Students gain skills and confidence in a variety of areas, including word-processing, creating educational multimedia games and making screen savers (one of which was sold last Christmas, raising 80 for charity). "People are becoming more confident, and doing things for themselves," says Mr Sheriff.
But there are problems. First, accreditation is difficult because of constant changes in this environment and the development al nature of the programme. The project is funded by a local social regeneration grant and European Social Funds. But it is seeking more flexible funding and plans to gain full accreditation in the future, possibly through the Further Education Funding Council.
The second problem is the benefits system, which restricts students to 16 hours' attendance a week, and the Job Seekers Allowance regulations, which put pressure on students that could force them to leave after six months.
No one pretends Dingle Opportuniti es will transform the area overnight. As Mr McGrath puts it: "It will take several years at least before we make an impact - and changing attitudes isn't easy." But there's little doubt that the scheme will give many residents new IT skills - and hope for the future.