Millions are using a free skills program to find unexpected career opportunities in a challenging time

Hairdressing was supposed to be Justine Salazar’s safety net. Her father had impressed upon her the need to make sure she always had income options, so she went to cosmetology school while pursuing a business degree and cut hair between other career forays over the years.

The 36-year-old single mother returned to those roots when her two sons needed her to have a more flexible schedule than her job as a property manager allowed. Then the pandemic shuttered salons, and unemployment benefits weren’t initially available for self-employed workers like hairdressers. Her contingency had become a casualty of COVID-19.

“I had just taken some of my savings out to pay down some debt, because I thought things were going really well,” Salazar recalls. “And then bam, no work. I went 13 weeks without unemployment checks, so things were very scary. I’m responsible for two human beings, so I thought, well, maybe this is a good time for some training.”

Now Salazar is one of more than 42 million people on every continent — even Antarctica — who have accessed free training through the Microsoft and LinkedIn global skills initiative, created a year ago to help unemployed workers during the pandemic. The effort surpassed its initial goals and is extending and broadening from its urgent origins last year, with an emphasis now on connecting learners with jobs that help them put their new training to use, and connecting employers with skilled job seekers they might not find in traditional networks.

Justine Salazar, who took free online classes to help her get a new job so she could work from home during the pandemic, in Oroville, Washington. (Photo by Dan DeLong)

As Salazar sat at home helping her kids with remote school classes, she saw a social media post about Remote Worker Training Certification through the Rural Online Initiative of the Utah State University, an effort supported by Microsoft’s TechSpark program, which aims to ensure everyone can benefit from the digital economy.

She was accepted for a six-week course and says the training provided the “extra shine” on her resume that — with the help of a career coach through the program — helped her land her “dream job” as a community liaison for WorkSource, connecting businesses and job seekers in Okanogan County along Washington’s border with Canada. She passes her own training on to job seekers spread out across the county, Washington’s largest by land size, giving them tips to help virtual interviews go well.

“This opportunity really changes so much for me and the boys,” Salazar says. She has tackled more debt, refinanced her car and is saving for a house. And after last year’s birthday gift to her sons was time spent together at the lake, she says, “now I’m excited to give them both presents and my presence.”

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

In addition to working with nonprofits to help retrain and connect job seekers, Microsoft’s initiative offers free courses through LinkedIn Learning that teach learners skills needed for the top 10 in-demand jobs around the world. And given the stressors of the pandemic, the “soft skills” courses that provide a professional foundation — such as resiliency, inclusivity and diversity, and leading through change — have proved just as popular, says Naria Santa Lucia, who leads digital inclusion for Microsoft Philanthropies.

Over the past year, the effort has matured to provide wraparound support to encourage students to make it to the finish line of their various learning pathways and then get connected to jobs. For example, the new LinkedIn Skills Path pilot helps candidates land interviews with companies that are hiring, such as Gap Inc. and TaskRabbit, for those who demonstrate proficiency by passing assessments tied to certain courses. And Career Connector focuses on linking course graduates from Microsoft’s nonprofit and learning partners with jobs in the company’s vast ecosystem.

“People can take these courses for many reasons,” Santa Lucia says. “Some are already employed and just want to brush up on project management skills — I did that — but for those jobs that went away with COVID-19, we want to give them that optionality to see where they can be connected to a new role.”

One goal is to diversify workforces by introducing employers to job seekers based on proven skills rather than on the usual networks and traditional education paths, which can be exclusive and hindering.

Christian Guyton (Photo provided by Guyton)

Christian Guyton, 21, tried for eight months after high school to find a job in IT but didn’t get a single interview and eventually took a fallback job in 2019. Guyton, whose pronouns are they/them/their, continued that job remotely while living with their mother in Milwaukee when the pandemic hit, but their passion remained technology.

Last fall they learned of gener8tor Upskilling, a Microsoft partner, and took a 10-week program in IT administration. The LinkedIn Learning courses — spaced out enough so Guyton could still work fulltime — augmented their knowledge from high school tech classes and volunteer work, with a deeper dive into elements such as network connectivity, virtual storage and the cloud.

When gener8tor Upskilling opened its Rolodex for Guyton halfway through the course, they got the first job they interviewed for and started work as an IT service technician in May.

“That previous attempt at job-seeking had shaken my confidence, but having gener8tor behind me was a breath of fresh air,” Guyton says. “Reinforcing the knowledge I had and learning new things all got me into a field I’d wanted to join since I was a kid. It’s a really good start. There’s a lot of room for promotion and growth at my new job.”

Gener8tor was founded nine years ago as an accelerator to connect startups with mentors, investors and corporate partners. The team’s work in 28 U.S. cities provided a front-row seat to the socioeconomic crisis spreading alongside the virus, says gener8tor co-founder Joe Kirgues, so the group jumped at the chance to partner on Microsoft’s skills initiative.

“We realized that instead of taking entrepreneurs to 50 investors, we could take 50 graduates to potential employers,” Kirgues says.

The group started gener8tor Upskilling in Wisconsin last summer and has since added seven other states with more to come, so far helping 83 job seekers find employment. Gener8tor staff work with local nonprofits to spread the word and with a national network of employers to facilitate new connections. It’s a cohort-based model, so while students get an individualized schedule and curriculum, they also have a shared community — an invaluable component for those who are entering the digital economy for the first time.

“It can be a little intimidating, so we think of it as a community where people can feel comfortable, be seen and know they’re surrounded by other people making the same difficult adjustment to digital skills,” Kirgues says.

Karen Oeding (Photo provided by Oeding)

That “upskilling” term is spot-on whether students are new to tech or not, says Karen Oeding, who credits the program for rescuing her career — and her mental health.

“There’s something that happened during that time of learning tough new things and sticking with it to complete the whole course that upskilled not just my coding but upskilled my ability to communicate with people, continue to learn skills and be competent in my work,” Oeding says.

The 60-year-old, who lives with her husband in Bloomington, Indiana, had already changed career paths once in her life, well before the pandemic hit.

As a dental hygienist in California in the 1980s, Oeding was the one colleagues turned to for learning materials — especially when HIV/AIDS, a newly discovered disease at the time, required a complete overhaul of dentistry protocols. She began teaching classes to share her research and clinical experience, wrote a manual that was distributed statewide and started an educational company. She adapted her work for a website in the ‘90s. Eventually she realized she enjoyed website design more than dentistry, so she sold her company and became a fulltime, self-employed “go-to person for digital things.”

When she suddenly lost half of her clients last year due to pandemic-related budget cuts, Oeding found herself spiraling into anxiety. The steady pace of her pre-pandemic work hadn’t afforded her the time to keep up with advances in website building and coding, but with more time on her hands she found herself absorbed with checking the news and not concentrating enough to look for training — or new clients.

“I wasn’t delivering on time, and I felt distracted and stuck and was not accomplishing the work that would earn me a self-sustaining income,” Oeding says. She learned about The Mill Code School — a gener8tor Upskilling nonprofit partner — from the Bloomington mayor’s weekly COVID-19 update and decided to apply. “I’d changed careers before, so I was really open.”

This program gave me a chance to succeed and changed my personal and professional trajectory.

But as The Mill’s community and classes built up her “concentration and social interaction muscles,” Oeding says, she began to realize she could use her new coding skills to automate and improve her current work, giving her the capacity for new projects with the clients she still had. She doubled her work with one client by taking on a new role, boosted her contract with another by a third, and last month won a new customer through her contacts at The Mill’s Startup Studio.

“I never would have proposed an increase in my contract before, but now I know I can supply them with better products and add in new and useful services,” Oeding says. “I learned a confidence in my ability to do good work for them, and they were excited to bring that onboard. This program gave me a chance to succeed and changed my personal and professional trajectory.”

Many participants say they’re inspired to keep learning new skills once initial courses are completed.

Rachelle Katchenago spent years doing physical labor at factories in Wisconsin, most recently making and packaging mattresses that were taller than she is, and was in so much pain she couldn’t even peel potatoes to make dinner for her sons. She was relieved when a temp agency got her a job doing customer service.

Woman with glasses sits near a computer monitor

Rachelle Katchenago got a job working from home in customer service after completing LinkedIn Learning classes and is now tackling project management courses. (Photo provided by Katchenago)

Then the pandemic hit and, along with millions of others around the world, the 37-year-old found herself without work or prospects and waiting for delayed unemployment checks. Her nephew had moved in with her, and her mother had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“It was overwhelming, like I was dying inside, I just didn’t know what to do,” Katchenago recalls. “But I had to keep on going because I had so many lives depending on me.”

Her mother had moved her off the Menominee Indian Reservation when Katchenago was a little girl to attend school near Appleton and give her more opportunities, so she leaned into that, reaching out to community groups for job leads and training ideas. One of them connected her to gener8tor Upskilling, and with its help she took the sales and customer service learning paths on LinkedIn Learning — often watching the videos with her 16-year-old son — and quickly got a job in customer service for a meal delivery company, working from home. She’s continuing to learn in her free time, taking LinkedIn Learning’s project management courses.

“As long as I keep working on my skillsets, I don’t see where I can go wrong,” Katchenago says. “I’m going to keep investing in myself, because I want to do something more and better for my life. I’ve come a long way, and I’m not giving up anytime soon.”

Top photo: Justine Salazar and her sons Trey, 8, and Truett, 12, at Osoyoos Lake near their home in Oroville, Washington (Photo by Dan DeLong)