Free online digital skills courses revive hope and careers for millions amid the pandemic

Lutendo Mabogo was mourning her fledgling door-to-door sales business that had been shut down by the pandemic, and she figured 2020 was going to be a squandered year in her efforts to finish her university degree.

Then the 22-year-old, who shares a metal shack with her mother and five sisters near Johannesburg, was scrolling through social media on her phone and saw an ad for free entrepreneurship coaching and computer skills training on LinkedIn. Just a few months later, she was getting ready to start a new job as a customer service specialist, with a salary that will help her save for her return to college and cover her little sister’s school fees as well.

Woman sits at computer and types on keyboard
Lutendo Mabogo had never even touched a computer until she learned to type papers in Microsoft Word for university, but after just a few classes on LinkedIn, she’s getting ready to start a new job as a customer service specialist. (Photo by Roy Potterill)

“Without this opportunity, this year would have been a waste for me,” Mabogo says. “I’ve been looking for a job, and since the lockdown there was nothing else I could do. Now I learned a lot and definitely will apply it in the future.”

Millions of people globally have faced circumstances similar to Mabogo’s as protective measures for the COVID-19 pandemic simply erased many in-person jobs, from waiting tables to cleaning hotel rooms to retail sales. Microsoft committed to helping with this urgent situation last June, launching a major initiative to offer free digital skills classes with the goal of helping train 25 million people for new or improved jobs by the end of the year.

By March, the company had given training to more than 30 million people, partly by partnering with nonprofit organizations that help job seekers, and extended the skills initiative through 2021. To increase momentum, Microsoft gave $20 million in cash grants to such nonprofits around the globe, along with $5 million to groups that focus on helping Black and African American people in the U.S.

“Technology was already rapidly reshaping economies around the world when COVID-19 struck,” says Microsoft President Brad Smith. “We hope this work will help people learn the right skills to transform their businesses, be productive and find new jobs in our new hybrid digital reality.”

LinkedIn Learning is at the center of the initiative and combines with Microsoft Learn and the GitHub Learning Lab for an approach that starts with data to identify the jobs that are in demand and the skills needed to succeed in them. The program provides people with free training, low-cost subsidized tests and certifications for those who want them, and job-seeking tools.

Free courses to boost your digital skills and learn about in-demand jobs are available at  

For Mabogo, those tools brought new hope for getting her goals back on track. When government funding fell through halfway through her degree, she was forced to drop out of college last year and move in with her family in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg. She started making and selling atchar, a spicy, fermented mango condiment eaten with most meals in South Africa. She was earning enough to support herself but not to pay for tuition, so she began selling her atchar door-to-door to stand out from other sellers who sat on the street and waited for customers.

Then the pandemic hit, South Africa went into lockdown, and Mabogo’s growing atchar business ceased overnight. Stuck at home, she floundered for a couple of months until she was accepted into a program with Afrika Tikkun, a nonprofit that offers free training in work readiness and partners with Microsoft on digital skills for underserved young people.

Mabogo had never even touched a computer until she learned how to type papers in Microsoft Word on a university library computer. But six months later, she had completed multiple online courses on business relations, entrepreneurship, retail, sales and customer service, along with basic computer skills, and was preparing to start a fulltime job in December as a retail customer service specialist — a placement found for her by Afrika Tikkun.

“I do want to complete my schooling, but for now I want to focus on business and also be able to help at home, because my little sister is in high school and next year she’s going to university. I want to be able to help her and save for myself,” Mabogo says. “I’ll get a retail job, and I want that experience so when I start my own business I’ll know what to do and what not to do.”

Woman stands in front of wall with painted handprints and a painted drum
Afrika Tikkun provides assessments, training and job placements to help South Africans become economically empowered. (Photo of Lutendo Mabogo by Roy Potterill)

Afrika Tikkun’s name was inspired by the Jewish concept of “tikkun olam,” which means to repair or improve the world for the benefit of society at large, and the African concept of “ubuntu,” which calls for moving beyond selfish interest to support others in recognition of our common humanity. The organization recruits, assesses and trains unemployed South Africans at six centers around the country to determine what in-demand jobs might be best suited to them.

“It’s not just about training,” says Afrika Tikkun Senior Executive Onyinye Nwaneri. “Our bigger interest is to enable people to transition into the economy, to become economically empowered.”

Technology touches every worker now, even delivery drivers, which are in high demand amid the pandemic, along with customer service agents, salespeople and software developers, Nwaneri says.

“Every job is in some way a digital job,” agrees Naria Santa Lucia, Microsoft Philanthropies’ general manager of skills for employability. “Even if you’re not working in the tech sector, everyone needs to have the basics of digital fluency.”

Santa Lucia was already working on finding ways to make sure underserved people around the world could participate in the increasingly digital economy when the pandemic hit. The initial effort grew out of recognition that a third of the new jobs created in the U.S. in the past 25 years have been in occupations that didn’t exist before, and that 1.1 billion jobs may be radically transformed by 2030. The pandemic’s impact on the global workforce magnified the situation.

“COVID-19 was like pouring gasoline on the digital transformation, along with a great loss of jobs, so we knew we had to help displaced people immediately,” Santa Lucia says.

In the U.S. alone, tens of millions of people have filed for unemployment benefits due to lost jobs during the pandemic, and most have been on assistance for six months or longer. The hardest hit have been people of color, those who lack college degrees, and low-wage workers who earn $50,000 or less a year, says Sonya Francis, the senior director of career navigation for Goodwill Industries International, a nonprofit that supports people in finding jobs.

“Many of these positions won’t even exist post-COVID,” Francis says. “In order to be considered employable and marketable, you have to have digital skills.”

Man stands and gestures at screen while two men sit in chairs
“A graduate degree may be out of reach, but this training Microsoft is offering is really accessible,” says Carlos Galeana (standing), the instructional tech trainer for Seattle Goodwill.

The organization serves many who have never used a computer, so it started focusing on entry level digital skills about three years ago. In 2020 it partnered with Microsoft to provide advanced training, testing and certifications in Atlanta and San Francisco, as well as Seattle and Tacoma in Washington.

“There’s a lot of excitement around particular Microsoft certifications because they’re enhancing employability quicker,” says Elizabeth McCombs, a project manager who works with Francis.

The pandemic proved a barrier to classes, since many Goodwill participants don’t have access to devices or the internet, McCombs says. But the organization still allows a small number of students to learn at career centers and also is offering mobile labs now, with Goodwill staffers taking devices and training to students’ homes.

“A graduate degree may be out of reach, but this training Microsoft is offering is really accessible,” says Carlos Galeana, the instructional tech trainer for Seattle Goodwill. Since the courses are online, students can complete them without having to purchase or install software, he says.

The LinkedIn modules have proven particularly helpful in giving students the fundamentals of digital literacy and showing them how it relates to all jobs and careers, whether they want to be an entrepreneur or a barista, says Eileen Aparis, vice president of job training for Seattle Goodwill. The classes give students the confidence to find jobs in administrative positions, medical fields, data science, manufacturing and more, she says.

“This opportunity with Microsoft isn’t just about being in IT or software or an app developer but to be successful in the workplace today,” Aparis says, “and the workplace of the 21st century is all technology.”

The program also is helping people who already have a firm grasp of technology and strong job skills, but want to make sure their career holds a promising future.

Portrait photo of Deepa Govindasamy
“Learning cloud computing is not a choice — it’s a must,” says Deepa Govindasamy. (Photo provided by Govindasamy)

Deepa Govindasamy, 36, followed her husband to Germany when his company transferred him there from India in 2018. After getting settled into her new country, Govindasamy wanted to return to her software-testing career, but she felt like something was missing as she looked for jobs. She’d studied civil engineering at university so only had on-the-job training in her chosen profession, and she knew there were things she needed to learn – especially cloud computing.

“Technology is growing and evolving so fast, I’ve seen it changing at warp speed, and the cloud is the future,” Govindasamy says. “Learning cloud computing is not a choice — it’s a must if you want to flourish in the IT industry.”

She heard about the nonprofit ReDI School of Digital Integration at a tech talk she attended in 2019, and in February 2020 — just as the pandemic was taking hold in Germany — she began a Microsoft Learn software development course with classes in Java, Microsoft Azure and more. She earned her first certification in July and then started a data science program that built on it, along with soft-skills classes such as managing a LinkedIn profile for networking.

“This was how my COVID pandemic lockdown was for me, so busy with so much learning,” she laughs.

Govindasamy will be done with her training soon and plans to volunteer teach at ReDI while looking for a job, giving back to others what she’s learned herself — just as those who taught her had done.

“Data science will be additional knowledge I’ll be able to implement,” she says. “It’ll definitely help me out because software testing has evolved very much, and data is the heart of testing now. And now I can go a lot further in my career with these external certifications.”

Woman stands amid a stack of red boxes
“More companies are aware that to survive, they need to attract more tech talent,” says Anne Kjaer Bathel, who founded ReDI School of Digital Integration in Germany after meeting an Iraqi computer scientist without a computer at a refugee camp in Berlin in 2015. (Photo provided by ReDI)

ReDI School Chief Executive Officer Anne Kjaer Bathel founded the organization after a chance encounter in 2015 with a refugee in Berlin. The man was from Iraq and had a bachelor’s degree in computer science, but he didn’t have a computer in Germany and was afraid of losing ground in the fast-moving industry.

“You’ve heard the story about teaching a man to fish, well what does that story look like in a digital world?” Kjaer Bathel, herself an immigrant from Denmark, recalls pondering. “You need hardware, internet access, you need tech skills, soft skills, language, and a professional network to help open doors to the industry.”

Students wearing masks sit in front of computers in a classroom
“We have seen with COVID-19 that the awareness of the need for digital skills isn’t just in the tech industry but is for everything, to work remotely or do school,” says ReDI CEO Anne Kjaer Bathel. (Photo of a ReDI classroom provided by ReDI)

Kjaer Bathel put up a post on her Facebook page and the next day had a couple dozen responses with people offering equipment, space, expertise and even cake, “because food always brings people together.” Now ReDI — a shortening of “ready for digital integration” — relies on 500 volunteers from the tech and startup industries to provide free training to refugees, immigrants and marginalized Germans.

“More companies are aware that to survive, they need to attract more tech talent,” Kjaer Bathel says. “And we have seen with COVID-19 that the awareness of the need for digital skills isn’t just in the tech industry but is for everything, to work remotely or do school.”

Germany is an accreditation-driven society, so ReDI’s ability to provide free certification programs through Microsoft’s skills initiative “ticks those boxes” and assures prospective employers that ReDI graduates will be able to perform, she says.

It’s also motivational for students like Idlir Islamaj.

Islamaj, 34, grew up in Albania and followed his passion for technology to a master’s degree in computer science and a job, but he didn’t see many opportunities to advance or improve — and he wasn’t making enough money to support a family. So when he read in 2018 that Germany was in need of IT experts, he and his wife decided to make the move.

Man wearing glasses
“I’m very motivated for the next certification” through ReDI School, says Idlir Islamaj. (Photo provided by Islamaj)

It wasn’t easy to leave his seaside home and learn a new language near landlocked Munich, but Islamaj quickly found a position as a system administrator. He heard about ReDI in 2019 and signed up for a Java course, having seen the need for it in creating different architecture. That led to an Azure certification program from Microsoft Learn that strengthened Islamaj’s knowledge of the cloud.

Now he’s a consultant for Beck et al, providing support to large global companies that use Microsoft 365 products.

“I feel really valued in what I do now, and I do my job with joy,” says Islamaj, who now makes enough to not only support his family — he and his wife had a baby — but to take them on vacations as well. “I see that I grow every day professionally and mentally. I see a lot of opportunities. And I’m very motivated for the next certification as well.”

Top photo: Lutendo Mabogo in front of Afrika Tikkun’s learning center in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg. (Photo by Roy Potterill)

This story was originally published on Nov. 16, 2020, and was updated on March 30, 2021.