Defense Media Network

Refreshing Your Computer Skills on a Shoestring

You obviously know how to use a computer or you wouldn’t be reading this article.

But could you land a job today with your current computer skills? Do you have what it takes to run a business from a keyboard? According to Allison Doyle, the job searching expert at, you are in a pinch if you can’t use the most common business packages: Microsoft® Word, database software like Microsoft Access, spreadsheet software like Microsoft Excel, and presentation software like Microsoft PowerPoint.

You’ll get no argument from Pamela Bir, president of Your Computer Lady software consultant firm in Tempe, Ariz. “Microsoft is still used at 80 percent of the businesses in the world,” she says. “You can use other options such as Google Apps, but you’re going to work harder at it. As a businessperson, your goal is not to be a computer expert – it’s to be productive and efficient. So if you are using some off-the-wall software that clients have to convert, and half can’t even open a file when you send it, you’re not being productive.”

But before you pat yourself on the back and click away, Bir also says most job candidates lack mid-level skills in these programs, and that’s what businesses need most. For instance, it’s not enough to open Word and write a letter. Today’s savvy employees know how to select appropriate fonts and where to change them, how to drop in graphs and charts, and how to produce the report in color. In short, they can dress it up and make the document appear more professional.

You are also a candidate for a computer skill upgrade if you only know one way to perform a task on the screen, in Bir’s estimation. If you aren’t in the habit of right-clicking your mouse or using the Control C, Control X, and Control V keystrokes to copy, cut, and paste, respectively, an employer will likely label you “rusty.”

“Computer skills are learned, they’re not genetic,” she notes. “You need to be realistic and educate yourself to really get the advantages of using your computer.”

Resources at Your Fingertips
If you are new to word, database, or presentation software concepts altogether, Bir recommends shelling out some cash (you could be looking at as much as $1,500) to attend a traditional instructor-led training session with New Horizons Computer Learning Centers or Learning Tree International. It’s not unusual to devote an entire day or more to the class. “That isn’t the best way to learn the software yourself because at the end of that eight hours, you will be brain dead,” she warns. “But it’s a great way to get the big picture, and then you are ready to learn your intermediate skills.”

If these prices and time commitment are out of your league, check out®, a service of the Goodwill Community Foundation, Inc., operated by Goodwill Industries of Eastern North Carolina, Inc. It’s a lot of disclaimers, but the important facts are that 770,000-plus users have relied on these 750 lessons for everything from assessing work readiness to mastering word processing. In fact, says Steve Snyderman of Goodwill Industries, basic math is among the most popular courses.

Best of all, this resource is free.

“I’ve never received negative feedback on our quality,” says Snyderman. “People send us donations to support it every week.” In fact, when the host site failed and GCFLearnFree was down for three hours last year, he fielded complaint calls from all over the country.

Improving the Odds
Luckily, the next step can be very cost effective and easier on the stress load: For a monthly fee of $25 (or $250 for a year) for basic access or $37.50 /$375 for premium access, you can launch training videos at your desk on everything from office software packages to photo editing, and programming websites in Flash®. Most videos run between 90 minutes and six hours as a qualified expert walks you through the program. Bir is big on the advantages. “I can watch it multiple times, so if I don’t understand setting tabs, for instance, I can repeat it and not fall behind.

“On the other hand, if they are talking about formatting text and I already know how to do that, I can stop that video and move on to something else,” she adds. An annual fee of $129 at this digital training site buys you all-you-can-learn access to digital training for the next 12 months. (Military members get a 30 percent discount when they type “MILITARY” in the coupon code box at checkout.) Owner Amy Webb created the site with podcasts, PDFs, and webinars to offer users a variety of options. The current lesson selection leans more toward instruction and advice on social media tools like creating slideshows, how to write in HTML, and how to produce QR codes, but the videos are never more than an hour long. The website even offers boot camp sessions that cover a popular tech topic in just 15 minutes. Webb offers to produce any lessons members need at no additional charge if they make the request.

For Dummies book series: Bir would love to see a set of these titles on everyone’s office bookshelf, if only for their indexes. “I could go to Word for Dummies, look at changing my margins in the index and go straight to the page that gives me the three steps I need,” she points out.  Definitely leave room for training manuals, too – some come with CDs that offer exercises to reinforce your learning.

And don’t be shy about buying these references for software you swear you know. Bir has used QuickBooks for 20 years, and relies on it every January to create the 1099s for Your Computer Lady. “But I only do it once a year, so I forget. If I didn’t have a reference book at hand to walk me through what to do, it would take me three times longer to figure it out,” Bir says.

No matter which of these options appeal most, do plan to mix up your learning options. You may prefer audio learning, for example, but that’s not always practical in the middle of an office setting. Nor is your reference library at hand when you’re sitting in the corner of a room at the Fairfield Inn®.

Business owners need to add yet a third step: Get a software and hardware expert on your team — someone you can call in the middle of the night if your report disappears. After all, you have an accountant and a lawyer on your team for the same reason. “If you get stuck, can’t get a video to insert correctly, you call me and I can run your mouse and keyboard to find the problem,” Bir says. “In five minutes, you have an answer and are moving forward with the project.”

How to Morph Into a Tech-Savvy You
Knowing your way around a computer screen is one way to define “technology proficient,” but Knowledgewebb founder Amy Webb takes it a step further. In her popular webinar, 10 Steps to a Tech Savvy-You, she offers these tips for getting comfortable and up to speed with the topic itself:

1. Plan to cuddle up to your inner nerd by reading about technology every day. Why?

2. To get familiar with the lingo, for starters. For example, what does “4G” mean and why do you need it? (Commercials don’t count as research.)

3. Use social media channels like Twitter and Facebook to follow the technology conversation on what’s possible, what’s not, and what’s coming. Hint: ReadWriteWeb, Mashable, TechCrunch, GigaOm, and Boomtown will get you started.

4. Keep track of new products, interesting concepts, and other tidbits from your reading on spreadsheets so you can revisit them when you need the information.

5. Don’t be afraid of your computer (or smartphone or netbook). Try one new app or website a week and go nuts. Why not start with Flipboard to convert articles stored on your iPad® into an easy-to-read magazine format, or Zotero, the Firefox plug-in that helps you collect, organize, and share information you find on the Internet?

6. Build a sandbox where you can experiment without the world watching. Blogs, for example, are a perfect option to practice coding, writing, design, tags, links, and analytics. If you don’t advertise it, chances are no one will trip by to see it.