Gigabyte and Google have made their way into the popular lexicon, but not everyone uses these terms with the ease of Bill Gates or the guys who founded Google. Older workers, in particular, may find their careers stymied by a lack of computer know-how.
Across a broad spectrum of industries, computer literacy is now viewed as a must-have for office workers, from receptionists to executives. And while many workers have embraced the computer revolution, others haven't taken the time to acquire these skills -- and find themselves dealing with the consequences, especially after a layoff or when trying to return to the workforce.
"If people don't have these skills, they're shooting themselves in the foot," says career counselor Linsey Levine of CareerCounsel.
Older workers who confess to being "scared of computers" or "from the old school" are asking for trouble, says Don Sutaria, founder and president of CareerQuest, a career coaching firm. "That's the kiss of death,” he says.
And that's bad news for older workers who run when they see a mouse -- a mouse of the computer variety, that is.
The good news is this: Computers are easier to use these days, training is widely available and there is no need to become a computer pro to thrive in today's office environment.
Conquer Your Fear
"The first thing is to get rid of the fear factor," Sutaria says.
A common stumbling block comes down to a person's attitude toward acquiring workplace skills, according to Levine. Some older workers, especially those who worked for one company for many years, may think of training as an employer's responsibility. "I see in older workers, sometimes, an attitude of, 'I didn't need to know that before, and this is who I am,'" Levine says. "If they want to continue to work, that's not the right attitude. Updating their skills is their own responsibility."
What Skills Should You Have?
Workers aiming to become computer-literate should focus on:
- Basic computer skills, such as using a mouse, typing on a keyboard, and navigating file systems and menus.
- Microsoft Office programs, with particular attention to Word, Excel and PowerPoint -- roughly in that order.
- Essential Internet skills, such as email, Web browsing and searching.
How to Get Started
One option is to enlist a son, daughter, grandchild or peer to bring you to a library or other location with free computer access. At this stage, the idea isn't necessarily to become adept at specific tasks, but to learn you won't break a computer by using it and, as Sutaria puts it, to break the fear associated with these machines.
Jenna Gausman, a career counselor at Kerwin and Associates, advises workers who are unsure about their skills to visit a temporary employment agency to take a test for computer skills. "It's a great way to figure out what skills you have and what you're lacking -- just to get a benchmark for yourself," she says.
Career counselors point to the amazing number of resources for learning about computers, many of them free (or close to it): friends and relatives, libraries, senior centers, learning centers, adult or continuing-education programs, community colleges and online tutorials. A library is often the best starting point, since libraries typically have computers available for patrons' use and may even offer brief computer classes (or know of the best local options).
Once you begin to learn, continued practice is essential. "If you don't use it, you don't really learn it," Gausman says. "You need to use the computer on a daily basis."
Market Your New Skills
And to make this work for you in today's job market, Gausman says, you want to think about obtaining experience and work samples. Volunteer work at a church or community organization -- entering names in a mailing list, say, or maybe even working on a newsletter -- provides both, as well as a boost of confidence.
Becoming adept with computers may also help older workers market themselves as someone who loves learning. "It gives people the impression that they're career-resilient and adaptable," she says.