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Computer skills essential for landing many jobs

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By Marie Wilson
Friday, Aug. 20, 2010

Today's jobs require computer skills.

Employers are saying it, and job seekers are quickly figuring it out. But some older Americans still lack experience with Microsoft Word, e-mail and searching the Internet.

The Senior Training and Employment Program operated by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services this week added a four-week computer training course to the program. And job training programs for older adults offered by Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh are meeting the need for computer skills among job seekers in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

"Certainly learning how to use a computer is a huge part of getting a job," said Jonathan Walkush, manager of planning and operations in the Bureau of Employment and Training Services at the County's Department of Human Services.

Adults 55 and older with income at or under 125 percent of the federal poverty rate can apply for the program, which accepts about 100 students each year, Walkush said.

Sharon Hahn, 67, of Brighton Heights said she used a computer for the first time Monday, learning everything from how to turn it on, to how to use the mouse and play a game of solitaire, which helps improve mouse-handling skills.

"I'm looking for a restaurant job. I was a housekeeper, but I'm too old to clean," said Hahn, a participant in the county program.

Students learned about data storage, resizing windows and using scroll bars on the second day of the course, held Wednesday at Oasis, a Downtown location of a national nonprofit dedicated to enriching the lives of older adults.

According to a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, 96 percent of workers use new communication technology, including the Internet, e-mail and cell phones.

"I was cynical. I said 'You don't need computers,'" said Rodney Brown, director of the mature workers program at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, an affiliate of the national organization focused on empowering African Americans and minorities. "But it's a reality. People really do need it."

Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania teaches participants in its job training courses Microsoft Word, Excel, Access and Powerpoint, as well as how to search the Internet, said Jay Poliziani, recruiter for training programs. Students take tests online to receive a Microsoft certification and another document proving computer skills called the International Computer Driving License.

"It does seem that for workers entering now, it's beneficial to have the documents from Microsoft and the ICDL," Poliziani said. "It helps for employers to see they're not going to have to spend a lot of time training you."

Participants do not leave these job training programs until they land a job, program directors said.

Nationwide, unemployment for people 55 and older increased 331 percent between 2000 and 2009, leaving more than 2 million older adults without jobs, according to the AARP's Public Policy Institute.

Rick Zoller, 56, of Greenfield said he entered the Senior Training and Employment program after losing his job unloading trucks at Big Lots in 2008.

"We do see people who are 55 to 60, have been working all their lives, get laid off and are unemployed," Walkush said.

Many participants are former factory workers or clerical workers, he said.

"To get a job anywhere close to what they were making at the job they recently had been laid off from, the computer skills are necessary," Poliziani said.

But only 26 percent of people 65 or older consider themselves extremely comfortable or very comfortable using the Internet, according to a 2009 AARP study of social media and technology use among adults ages 50 and older.

"You have people going into the workplace, and they need basic skills -- how to save a document, how to get online -- pretty basic things," said Michael Cunningham, director of employment at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.

The Urban League's mature workers program has included computer training for about three years, Brown said. Students enter at a beginner, intermediate or advanced level, said Winford Craig, information technology director. And what they learn about computers makes them more effective workers, he said.

"Microsoft Outlook is extremely important," Craig said. "It gives students the understanding of how to manage their time as well as e-mail capabilities."

For job seekers like Hahn who are using computers for the first time, small classes and simply written, large print handouts are helpful, said Shirley Fisher, outreach and civic engagement manager for Oasis' Pittsburgh location.

"The older you get, sometimes it's a little harder to understand," Craig said. "And in the technology world, a lot of them are starting from scratch."

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