Microsoft Aims to Help Make U.S. Workforce More Competitive

WASHINGTON, D.C. Feb. 27, 2006 – It’s no secret that the United States is falling behind in efforts to equip its workers with the basic technology and computing skills necessary for them to compete in the global economy.

Just pick up a newspaper, turn on the television or strike up a conversation with business and government leaders. They’ll tell you that while U.S. efforts to ready its workforce have slipped, countries like India, China and Russia have stepped up their IT educational pursuits. These developing countries are hoping to duplicate the economic success the United States has enjoyed in the last three decades, due in large part to its embrace of information and communications technologies.

Thankfully, says Microsoft’s Vice President of Global Corporate Affairs Pamela Passman, there should be plenty of jobs to go around. And, provided the United States also takes measures to boost its access and IT training efforts, there need not be cause for great alarm. But without large sums of government money to fund these endeavors, she noted that readying the American workforce will indeed be a challenge.

Passman gave today’s keynote address during the National Association of Workforce Boards Forum 2006 in Washington, D.C. The NAWB represents the interests of the nation’s Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs). Across the country, more than 600 state and local WIBs are providing workforce development leadership in their communities. Earlier, PressPass asked Passman to discuss the global IT workforce situation and to detail Microsoft’s efforts to help U.S. workers flourish in the knowledge economy of today and tomorrow.

PressPass: Please describe for us your take on the current state of the U.S. workforce and its ability to compete globally.

Pamela Passman: Well, as a company that conducts business in 100 different countries, we at Microsoft are concerned. As a nation, the U.S. is falling behind on any number of measures of workforce readiness. For instance, research shows that only 13 percent of American adults are “proficient” in the knowledge and skills needed to search, comprehend and use information, a 13 percent drop since 1992. Only 5 percent of American college students are pursing degrees in science or engineering, compared with 42 percent of students in China.

Meanwhile, with Baby Boomers starting to retire this year, older workers will be leaving the workforce much more quickly than new workers are entering the job market. While population growth is expected to make up for much of this shortfall, this growth will come almost entirely from immigrants who are far less likely to have the minimum education required for most jobs.

At the same time, the nature of work in America is rapidly shifting. As the workplace moves from a manufacturing- to information-based economy, the skills that workers require increasingly revolve around knowledge creation and information sharing, insight and analysis, and collaboration and advanced communications skills.

PressPass: How does the U.S. situation compare to other countries?

Passman: While the American Competitiveness Initiative laid out in the President’s recent State of the Union message offered some solutions to these challenges, the reality is that as a nation we are not doing nearly enough to equip American workers with the kinds of basic technology and computing skills necessary for them, or for American businesses, to be competitive in the global economy.

Countries like India and China and Russia have seen the economic success the U.S. has enjoyed over the last three decades, due in large part to our embrace of information and communications technologies, and they want a piece of the action.

The good news is that there’s plenty to go around. U.S. leaders do not have to worry about the fact that other nations are investing in IT education and skills training as long as they are making similar investments in the nation’s workforce.

Pamela Passman, Vice President, Global Corporate Affairs, and Deputy General Counsel, Microsoft.

PressPass: What is Microsoft doing to make the situation better?

Passman: About 10 years ago, we began to see at Microsoft that digital literacy was becoming an important national issue. Initially, Microsoft thought the problem, and the challenge, could be solved by providing access to technology. One of Microsoft’s first initiatives was called Libraries Online, and over a period of several years in the mid-to-late 90s, Microsoft provided cash, software and technical support to equip thousands of American libraries across the country—especially in underserved rural and inner-city communities—with computers and access to the Internet.

What Microsoft learned over time, however, was that, as important as the access to technology was, it was also crucial to provide education and training in how to use computers and the Internet.

Over the last decade, Microsoft has developed a range of commercial and charitable programs designed to address the need for IT education and skills training, as well as validation and certification of such skills.

In addition to these programs, which are managed on the commercial side of our business, Microsoft launched two major new digital literacy programs in 2003 in partnership with the public sector and the non-profit community. The first, Partners in Learning, provides students, educators and local governments with the resources they need to make technology an integral part of classroom learning and instruction.

The second of Microsoft’s major digital literacy programs is called Unlimited Potential, and it is designed to provide underserved populations with IT education and skills training through community-based technology learning centers around the country. On a global level, the company has made a commitment to provide IT education and skills training to a quarter of a billion people by 2010.

In the three years since the Unlimited Potential program began, Microsoft has made more than $24 million in cash and software grants, and provided technical support and training curriculum to 170 technology learning centers in the U.S., about half of which are specifically targeted at workforce development. One of the best things about Unlimited Potential is that in addition to cash grants, the IT skills curriculum and the availability of free or low-cost software helps create sustainable capacity in these technology learning centers.

For example, a grant to Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, in San Jose, is being used to significantly expand the availability of 60-hour classes in computer and Internet skills to newly-arrived immigrants and refugees, and to assist clients with resume development and Internet job searches.

In St. Louis, the St. Patrick Center is using a Microsoft grant to support an 8-week course in computer skills for the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless. Upon successful completion of the course, graduates participate in a four-week paid internship where they have an opportunity to leverage their new skills.

Those are just two program highlights.

PressPass: OK, but these are all programs that have been in existence for a while and the knowledge worker deficit remains. Does Microsoft have any new initiatives to propose?

Passman: While all of these efforts are important, and something Microsoft is certainly proud of, they represent only what one company is doing to provide workers with essential technology and computing skills. There are other things which we, at Microsoft believe the public and private sector can and should do to help the U.S. and its workers prepare for the increasingly competitive global marketplace.

The first is to set an ambitious but achievable national goal. I propose that by 2010, every young person, every job seeker, every displaced worker and every individual in the U.S. workforce who wants to possess a basic level of technology and computing skills will have access to the education and training they need to succeed in the knowledge economy.

To accomplish this, the United States needs to better utilize and align existing resources in both the public and private sectors, and develop new resources where they’re needed and don’t exist.

PressPass: How will Microsoft kickstart this effort and take a leadership role?

Passman: Microsoft is inviting other industry leaders to join with us in an alliance that will focus on two objectives: First, to work with other leaders in the private and public sectors to create a national workforce development policy framework, goals and agenda for the United States. Many other nations have comprehensive strategies that define the challenges, needs, and necessary policy, legislative and funding tools. We cannot afford to be among those lacking a roadmap to ensure that American workers are equipped for the 21st-century knowledge economy. The second goal of this alliance would be to work with the public sector to more effectively align successful private sector models of ICT skills training and certification with public sector workforce development programs, which I think we all agree are not serving the needs of workers and employers as effectively as they could be.

I’m also pleased to announce that Microsoft will make available a new, online Digital Literacy curriculum – at no cost – to eligible educational, non-profit and government organizations throughout the United States.

Digital Literacy is a five-course curriculum that provides a foundation of basic computer skills to learners with little or no prior computing experience. The curriculum combines award-winning eLearning, assessments, and a certificate test in an adaptable format that can be used in an instructor-led classroom environment or as self-paced study. The eLearning is available as a hosted online experience, or can be downloaded and played on a local machine. Learners can also download a Microsoft Word version of the content which can be edited and adapted. The curriculum culminates in a Digital Literacy Certificate test, which assesses knowledge across all five courses. Students who pass the test will be able to print out a personalized Digital Literacy certificate.

PressPass: Can you elaborate on the Digital Literacy curriculum particulars?

Passman: First, this curriculum is targeted to serve people who may have little or no experience using a computer. Second, the curriculum is comprehensive, yet manageable. Using a proven online learning format, the five-part curriculum will cover computer basics, how to use the Internet and productivity software, computer security and privacy, and a fifth category we call Digital Lifestyle – which is about the different ways people are using computers at home and in their daily lives. Third, it includes an online self-assessment component that allows users to identify areas in which they need additional training. Fourth, an online certificate test will validate an individual’s ICT skills. For employers, this certificate will help assess a potential employee’s ICT skills proficiency. And fifth, the Digital Literacy curriculum will be made available free to governments, accredited educational institutions and nongovernmental organizations which are eligible for, or participating in, one or more of Microsoft’s IT skills education or training programs.

In addition, when the new curriculum is available next month (March 2006), and the assessment modules become available in May, they’ll become the de-facto curriculum for new participants in our Unlimited Potential program.

While we all know there is no magic bullet in workforce development, we are excited about the possibilities this new Digital Literacy curriculum offers to educate, assess and validate IT skills proficiency for thousands, if not millions of American workers.

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