Workers' critical update: Computer skills

By Susan Kreimer
Sunday, November 1, 2009

In the current competitive climate, upgrading your computer aptitude can help secure advancement within a company, better employment elsewhere or re-entry into the workforce after a downsizing.

Some companies are helping. In May, the Edelman public relations firm rolled out an interactive desktop system that trains employees in social networking online -- at their own pace.

"In our industry, it's quite critical today," said Laura Smith, managing director of U.S. human resources at Edelman in the District. Those who advance in hands-on use of LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are elevated to another rank in the training system.

"We're tying this to promotions," she said.

Microsoft, through its Elevate America program, is offering free technical training and certification online to as many as 2 million Americans over the next three years. Launched in Washington state in February, the effort reached Virginia in July and Maryland in mid-October. The Web site is designed to help job seekers with the basics, such as creating a résumé, sending e-mail, and using Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Residents of states where it is offered can enroll in the program through workforce development and unemployment agencies. They receive a voucher with a code that allows them to take the self-paced courses and certification exams online.

"What we are seeing is, by some estimates, that more than half of today's jobs require some technology skills," said Akhtar Badshah, senior director of global community affairs at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash.

Experts say listing technical certifications on a résumé should help job-seekers. Recent graduates tend to be well-versed in the latest computer applications, placing more experienced but downsized workers at a disadvantage if they haven't stayed up-to-date, said Daisy Stewart, associate director in the School of Education at Virginia Tech.

"Gaining those specific skills could be the step up that a person would need to be attractive to an employer," she said. Community colleges are "probably one of the best avenues" for adding technical know-how.

Candidates can document relevant coursework on a transcript. "That may carry more weight with an employer than just saying 'I know how to do that,' " Stewart said.

Joe Ginter, a junior in finance and accounting at American University, landed an internship at Wells Fargo Advisors in Westport, Conn., last summer that didn't require knowledge of Excel. But this expertise came in handy, anyway. He applied his tech savvy to develop a tool that a financial adviser uses regularly.

"It's a spreadsheet that collects real-time stock index values" from the Web, Ginter said. "I have it arranged so that it will interpret each value and present it in a color graph."

Ginter had completed a two-day weekend Excel certification course with Nicole Melander, executive in residence at American University's Kogod School of Business, during the summer of 2008. Then he took the Excel Expert advanced course in February.

"It was definitely an optional thing that I sought out," said Ginter, 20, who remembers that Melander announced the training workshops in one of his regular classes. He received academic credit for each course and made himself more marketable.

In Melander's estimation, Excel expertise ranks as the top tech priority among hiring managers. "It's a nice way to differentiate between two candidates who have the same skills," she said. "If one has certification and the other doesn't, it makes it easier for the employer to make a decision between the two."

-- Special to The Washington Post

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