A World of Possibilities
People would say to me, ‘I don’t need to use a computer,’ and I would them that computers could give them access to unlimited resources and a wealth of information. —Robbin McLaurin, former BAP apprentice
Robbin McLaurin has always been drawn to technology. After high school she got her micro-computer specialist certification and worked as a data technician at an aeronautics engineering company. By her early twenties, she was working for the supercomputer firm, Control Data Corporation. She earned a bachelor’s degree in management and an A-plus certification to become a certified bench technician, enabling her to repair and rebuild computers for retailers like Best Buy. In short, she knows her stuff.
So it was no surprise when she was one of 10 apprentices hired last June to staff computer labs as part of the Broadband Access Project (BAP), a $3.6 million initiative of the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC). Located at 11 community-based sites in four federally designated poverty zones in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the labs are funded in part by a $2.9-million stimulus-related grant and supported by $741,000 in matching funds from the University and community partners. The goal is to make broadband access and computer skills more accessible to underserved urban communities.
McLaurin was already looking for computer-related work when she heard about the BAP apprentice position. It had been over a year since she’d been laid off from her longtime job with Minneapolis-based Tennant Company, and she was searching for an opportunity that would make use of, and hopefully enhance, her skills. “I was part of Tennant’s e-business team and I was really hoping to get into their IT department, but then this massive layoff happened,” she recalls.
Staying in the neighborhood
While some apprentices worked at several different labs over their 15-month appointments, McLaurin spent her entire apprenticeship staffing the computer lab at Phyllis Wheatley Community Center in North Minneapolis. Growing up just a few blocks from the center, McLaurin played there as a kid just like her mom had when she was a child. Today she lives less than a mile from the center and her parents still live in the family home a few blocks away.
“My family has been in this neighborhood for 46 years, so this was my first choice of labs,” she says. Spending so much time at one lab allowed McLaurin to build relationships with new computer users who were self-conscious about their lack of technology know-how. Many didn’t realize what they were missing out on until she convinced them to sit down and give computers a try.
“People would say to me, ‘I don’t need to use a computer,’ and I would tell them that computers could give them access to unlimited resources and a wealth of information,” says McLaurin. “I’d say, ‘You don’t even know what you want to know because you’ve never been on the Internet.’ And once they did get on the Internet they would start thinking of all kinds of stuff they never knew they wanted to know before.”
Start with email
Most of the people McLaurin worked with at Phyllis Wheatley’s lab were looking for help creating resumes and finding work. But she also helped people use the Internet to find affordable housing, which is in short supply since a tornado tore through nearby neighborhoods destroying entire blocks in minutes, last May. “I had a guy come in just after the tornado and he’d lost everything, all his papers everything was gone,” she recalls. “I helped him get on the Internet and find phone numbers and call people to get copies of his GED and his culinary certificate so he could find work.”
Not long after the tornado hit, lab usage surged again when the state government shutdown temporarily closed workforce centers that help the unemployed find work. McLaurin worked with those lab users the way she worked with everyone else who came through the door—they started with an email address. “You have to have an email address to communicate today, so that’s the first thing we did and then we created a document, saved it and I’d have them send it to themselves,” she says.
Often, the document McLaurin helped people with was a resume. Some needed help updating old resumes, but many lab users were making a resume for the first time. Finished resumes were posted at popular online employment websites, such as Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com. “I really encouraged using sites like those that save your resume because it makes applying for multiple jobs so much faster and easier,” McLaurin says, adding that she also helped people set up LinkedIn accounts for professional networking.
Putting new skills to work
Having started her apprenticeship with a strong background in computer hardware, McLaurin is happy to have gained software and customer service experience she can now put to good use at her next job. “I used to do tech support on the phone and I never understood what people on the other end of the line couldn’t get,” she explains. “Now I have a whole new perspective because I’ve been working with people face to face.”
It’s clear to her now that what people weren’t saying on the phone was that they had no idea how to use a computer, so what she was telling them didn’t make sense. “Face to face I can establish a rapport with people so they can be vulnerable and tell me they don’t understand and they need more basic help,” McLaurin says.
In a world where IT professionals are often panned for not having good people skills, McLaurin feels confident that employers will value what she’s learned during her apprenticeship. “I can teach someone how to use a computer who has never used one and I can break it down into the simplest form,” she says. “I can see IT from both sides now and that’s rare.”