Time to embrace your computer

TECHNOPHOBE ALERT

They are accountants and technicians, sales supervisors and secretaries, human resource managers and plant managers.

On this particular night they pack the computer lab at the Professional Development Center (PDC) here in Montrose, Calif. with one goal: to master Microsoft Word.

"If you don't have computer skills, it's like you don't know how to read," says Gabriel Plascencia, as he spell checks a letter. In the past five years, the aerospace company shipping supervisor has seen his job become completely computerized.

He's not the only one.

Technology is fusing itself into virtually every aspect of the way a company runs.

From monitoring monthly sales figures to submitting expense reports to reading the company newsletter, it's all electronic.

Fact is you can't get far in today's workplace without point-and-click proficiency.

Yet cubicles and corner offices throughout corporate America are still filled with computer illiterates - some even brag about it. Call them "technophobes." Many are terrified of technology.

Yet as companies look to boost productivity, they're putting more emphasis on computer literacy. Some are even testing employees. That means those hoping to finish out their careers without booting up a computer could feel the heat.

"It's not that these people are deliberately resisting. It's that we're asking them to learn a new language in a very short period of time," says career counselor Marilyn Moats Kennedy, who runs Career Strategies in Wilmette, Ill.

While most companies have hardware and software on everybody's desk, the question is can people use it? The answer often is: "not very well."

One estimate suggests that those who use a computer on the job utilize only about 25 percent of its capability.

Frequently, much of the incompetence divides itself along generational lines.

Ms. Moats Kennedy suggests that more than half of middle and senior managers (the 40 and 50 age crowd) are technologically incompetent. One PDC computer instructor tells of a trainee who, when asked to click on the mouse, rolled it across his computer screen.

Even worse than not knowing are those who try to fake it.

"It's like someone who is illiterate trying to fool someone into believing they can read," says Barbara Golden, who 13 years ago founded Computing Solutions, a training company in Chicago.

During a training session at a local bank, she discovered that some employees were using a hand-held calculator to compute numbers and then entering them into a spreadsheet program rather than having the program do the calculations automatically.

"I think there's a gap in what people say they can do and what people really can do," says Judi Strauss, a professor of human resource management at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill.

A year ago, a group of graduate students at the university surveyed 227 human-resource employees and asked them to list their computer skills. Then they tested them on those skills.

The result: "People who thought they knew what they were doing, when tested, didn't have the skills to use the program," says Dr. Strauss, who supervised the survey.

Yet for most workers, all the foot dragging isn't about being lazy, it's about fear.

"People have told them they're stupid. Even their kids have told them that, which makes them even more afraid," Ms. Golden says.

In fact, some executives try to hide that they're learning to use a computer.

When training an executive of a large corporation in Chicago, Golden recalls, "we had to go into a separate door so no one knew we were training him."

"There's a power issue where many of the older executives are still comfortable having their secretaries do this," Strauss says.

The problem is that computer illiteracy means big money lost. Every senior manager who can't use a computer costs a company $50,000 (the annual salary and benefits for a support person), Moats Kennedy estimates.

Yet as the dollars start to add up, more employers are serious about rejecting applicants who lack computer skills. And more companies are testing potential recruits as well as their own employees.

HOW TO PICK A COMPUTER CLASS

Fact: The No. 1 thing you can do to boost your career is update your computer skills.

OK, but how?

The most obvious is to enroll in a computer-training course.

Universities, community colleges, community centers - even churches - offer classes.

Beware some university courses, which tend to teach more of a history of computing, says Marilyn Moats Kennedy of Career Strategies in Wilmette, Ill. Rather, she recommends taking a class at a local community college, which is usually the most cost-effective.

When you select a computer class, the experts agree that shorter classes that meet more frequently are better than one- or two-day cram sessions. Classes should also teach material that is directly applicable to your job or industry - or the job you're trying to land.

A private tutor is another option. Plenty of computer-training centers provide one-on-one assistance.

Another option is getting someone at work to help you.

Some companies are setting up mentoring programs where young recruits help their bosses learn basic computer skills. In return, bosses educate them on the rules of office politics.

"That's how I felt comfortable with computers," says Judi Strauss, a professor at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill. who studies how people use computers. In a year, her graduate assistant helped her become computer savvy.

Your own children can be great tutors, too, Dr. Strauss says.

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