Jamaica hopes new school will give it foothold in information age

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The Independent US

In this resort town known for white sand, rum punch and laid-back ways, economically depressed Jamaica is hustling to carve out a niche in the booming cyberspace world.

In this resort town known for white sand, rum punch and laid-back ways, economically depressed Jamaica is hustling to carve out a niche in the booming cyberspace world.

A new school - believed the first of its kind in the Caribbean - is training Jamaicans in the intricacies of computer software.

Aware that a shortage of software specialists in the United States helped create programming industries in places like India and Israel, the Caribbean Institute of Technology is trying to do the same for Jamaica.

"This is the future: not mining or farming, but computers," said Carlington Duncan, 21, who graduated with the school's first class, in December.

The institute is a joint project of Indusa, an Atlanta-based software services company, the Jamaican government, Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, a consortium of British schools and government agencies, and the University of the West Indies.

James Ram, founder of Indusa and the driving force behind the school, said Jamaica has several selling points that could help the island attract high tech businesses.

Wages are low and Jamaicans speak English, the language of computing, he noted. The island also shares a time zone with the eastern United States. And its resort infrastructure makes it an appealing place for a U.S. firm to send executives and trainers.

The government is seeking investment in the lower end of the information industry through the construction of two high-tech office parks to house international phone centers and data-processing operations.

Software programming companies also could fit in - "if we can generate enough programmers in the coming years," said Erroll Hewitt, an adviser to Phillip Paulwell, minister for industry, commerce and technology.

Together, such businesses could create 6,500 jobs in coming years, officials say.

The push comes at a time when globalization is costing Jamaica jobs by the thousands as textile factories move to Mexico, where they can take advantage of its duty-free access to the U.S. market under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Jobs also have been lost because the U.S. Congress in 1993 eliminated tax breaks designed to encourage American corporations to build factories in the region. U.S. President Bill Clinton signed a new trade bill in May restoring many of the Caribbean Basin Initiative inducements, but the effect has not yet been felt.

The erosion in jobs has put the official unemployment rate above 15 percent for the island of 2.6 million people.

"Economic and social progress in this global village dictates that we must embrace emerging technologies," Prime Minister P.J. Patterson told Jamaicans earlier this year.

Duncan and 42 of his 56 classmates began working for Indusa in January. Their first job was a dlrs 2 million contract for programming network operating software for Applianceware, an Atlanta-based Web software company. Indusa says it's negotiating deals with other U.S. companies.

Applianceware chose Indusa because of the "availability of people with the skill sets we needed," said Stacy Kenworthy, the company's president. "The labor market in the high tech world is so tight, simply being able to get the resources, no matter where they are located, is a great benefit."

But Jamaica and other Caribbean nations face many hurdles to becoming significant players in the computer industry, he added. Steep telephone rates and high prices for home computers limit the ability of people to develop technological skills and that could "strangle this effort in its infancy," he said.

Graduates of the programming school who work for Indusa earn dlrs 14,500 a year - low by U.S. standards but high for Jamaica, where wages average about dlrs 8,900 a year.

The institute's second class, which started in January, is double the size of the first, and more than 300 people applied for the 105 slots. Students spend 10 months learning programming languages as well as Web-based software and systems applications.

If a student promises to stay in Jamaica for at least two years after graduation, the government picks up two-thirds of the dlrs 6,000 tuition and provides a low-interest loan for the rest.

"We are going to be replicating the CIT throughout the country," said Paulwell, the industry minister. "This is going to move us beyond what we're already best known for: tourism and reggae."

Kenneth Wasch, head of the Software and Information Industry Association, an American trade group, is skeptical. He said India and Israel are attractive because they offer an abundance of programmers with graduate degrees in computer science from first-rate local universities.

But Ram cited his own experience funneling programming work for U.S. companies to a shop in his native India. Some of his clients were "uncomfortable with the idea of sending work so far away," he said.

The school is attracting attention throughout the Caribbean.

"We have not yet started software training in Barbados in any meaningful way, and we need to study that school," said R.O. Jordan, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Barbados, which has a small information-processing industry.