| Sarasota Herald-Tribune
When Liz Allen returned home to Sarasota after following family to Atlanta, she needed to find a job.
Allen, 57, had left her job at a Sarasota doctor’s office about a year earlier, but after years of working in the medical profession, the set of computer skills Allen had learned were insufficient for finding the kind of work she wanted.
That she didn’t own a computer only made the search tougher.
Allen’s story is not an unfamiliar one. Everywhere you look, there are people who lack the skills to hunt for jobs today, let alone have the skills employers are searching for. And, even if they had these skills, many lack computers or internet access.
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Foundational digital skills
“I’ve been here 18 years, and when I first came here, we would fill most applications out by hand, the old-fashioned way,” said Carlos Yancy Sr., career development facilitator at Goodwill Manasota’s Job Connection office in Newtown.
“But now, you want to apply for a job at McDonald’s, you must have some sort of internet savvy. You must have an email address. You must know how to apply from a computer. And if McDonald’s is doing it, you know any job that is going to be paying more, that’s going to be more lucrative, is doing it.”
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The basic digital skill sets some take for granted are barriers that keep many people from either finding work or moving up the company ladder.
A 2019 report by the Urban Institute shows the importance of foundational skills in the workforce. Foundational skills vary from turning on a computer and working a mouse, to making a resume and looking for information on the internet, to accessing a database and using a scheduling system.
“Research shows, however, that many workers and job seekers lack foundational digital skills,” the report says. “Closing this gap requires digital training.”
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Antonia Quiros, the mission services program administrator for Goodwill Manasota, works at the Newtown center.
In her role, she helps to teach people those foundational digital skills. She helps them create email addresses so they can fill out an application, teaches them how to use a computer to find job openings, helps them create profiles on job boards and shows them how to create a resume.
“If you have no digital literacy, you don’t even understand what a cloud is,” she said. “It’s really hard. If you don’t have an email address, how do you get a job? If you don’t have a computer, how do you get an email address?”
That problem affects more than just one specific age group or one specific socioeconomic background. Quiros has worked with former corporate executives who’ve never had to work a computer by themselves and young people who know their way around a phone but don’t know Excel.
“You take for granted basic things that you think everyone knows on a computer,” she said. “You just don’t realize how privileged you are until you meet people who have no idea.”
Goodwill Manasota received a $50,000 grant over three years from Google, used, among other things, to help boost people’s digital skills and to bring in a professor from the State College of Florida to teach Excel.
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Mireya C. Eavey, executive vice president of CareerEdge and education initiatives at the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, said employers have long had a “huge need” to find employees with the right digital skills.
As far back as 10 years ago, employers were concerned that as the workplace shifted toward technology, their workers might not have the skills to adjust. At the time, the chamber used grant money from Microsoft to try to work with people who needed to bridge that digital digital divide.
Those concerns have not gone away. In fact, the need to have employees with the right digital skills has been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic because many companies are now relying on employees who work from home.
Eavey says current employees or people looking for work must have the skills necessary to work the programs companies use or just know how to maneuver through a Zoom meeting.
Because of the growing demand for those skills, she worries that the “digital divide is going to widen.”
“We work with a lot of low-income individuals, and I’m very concerned that their opportunities are going to diminish even more because of how our work environments are changing,” she said.
The news is not all bleak, though. The changes in how companies do their work means that people don’t need a four-year college degree to get the jobs that are available.
A 2017 study by the Georgetown University Center of Education and the Workforce found that there are more than 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 a year that don’t require a college degree.
But in order for people to qualify for those jobs, they have to have access to technology and training.
To build a workforce that meets the demands of the job market, you must begin at school, Eavey said.
The first step needs to be for students to have access to technology and good reliable internet service at home – which will help parents as well.
Technical schools and community colleges, as well as community organizations, can also play a big role in making sure people, whether students or people who are looking for work, are learning the skills they need and that employers require.
“We have to look at where we can connect with the people. We have to look for community solutions,” Eavey said.
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As for Allen, she got lucky.
She was chosen to participate in a pilot program between Goodwill and the Women’s Resource Center that gave 10 low-income women computer training, support and a laptop. She graduated from the program Thursday.
Allen feels she now has the skills to help her get “not just a job, but a better job.”
“It’s very hard,” she said. “Trust me. I’ve been down this road.”
This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire and engage the community to take action on issues related to digital access.