Computer Skills: key skill or just an element of general culture?

January 30, 2017, by Daniel Asselin

Texte original en français -

Can you imagine an electricity company advertising for new electricians and, in the list of skills required for the job, saying that practical knowledge of electricity, of understanding layouts and quotes, and of circuit assembly standards was ‘desirable’ and that qualifications were not required? Would they take on someone who knew nothing about electricity, thinking that if the worst came to the worst they could send them on a short training course, if there was time and it didn’t break the budget?

No, obviously, everyone would think doing such a thing was absolutely absurd – and rightly so!

Yet, over the past 25 years, hundreds of thousands of people have been given jobs in both the public and private sectors without anyone checking their proficiency in using computers. As if such skills were secondary, incidental – optional, even. They’ll check the quality of their literacy and numeracy, their general knowledge and their problem-solving skills, but only very rarely will their practical computer skills be verified. The most anyone might do is to ask, in a vague, informal way, “Are you familiar with Word and Excel?”

Twenty-five to thirty years ago, computers and other digital tools had not really penetrated the workplace to any great extent. As a rule, the few desktop tool around were used exclusively by ‘specialists’. Only people who had spent a couple of years learning secretarial and computer skills were capable of using WordPerfect. A few rare souls went as far as Lotus 123, but as for Dbase, the only people trusted with compiling data bases were IT technicians. Everyone else – office workers and operational staff alike – had little contact with computers.

Fifteen years ago, office automation tool was still seen as an optional extra, like photocopiers, fax machines and telephones. Employees were taken on for all sorts of jobs based on a whole range of required skills, but without any importance being accorded to their computer skills. For example, people would be given a job in the marketing department because they had a marketing qualification and a few years experience in the field, as long as they responded with a vague “Yes” to the question “Are you familiar with Microsoft Office?”

Nowadays, most workers are in close contact with computers. From the nurse at the CLSC to the DPJ social worker, and from the HR manager to the car salesman – computers are everywhere, all the time. Working today means using a computer. No longer are they optional extras; now, they are the work itself. And knowing how to use them is an absolute must when it comes to working effectively.

Bizarrely, the educational world has not kept up with these changes in the world of work. Desktop applications courses are still the poor relation in terms of education systems. How come universities and CÉGEPS offering professional and vocational education do not give students (and hence future workers) the necessary computer skills to be highly proficient in using the high-tech tools that they will be using at work. Either they offer a few basic courses, or the students are just left to get on with it, under the assumption that they will teach themselves, or because ‘computer skills’ are seen as belonging to a more general culture and therefore not within the establishment’s remit. The quality of written communication is paramount, yet no-one bothers to check prospective employees’ familiarity with the software that they will be using to write these same texts. How come an engineering course does not include ‘thorough’ training in Word, Excel, MS Project, Visio, or Outlook, when an engineer’s everyday tasks involve using these software tools? Proficiency in these will be just as important for future employers as the practical and theoretical skills of their profession.

Computer skills are not elements of general culture that people can freely acquire, as and when it suits them, and to their preferred level of proficiency. Today, in 2017, they are Key Skill Number 2 for anyone in search of a job, Key Skill Number 1 being, of course, the specific professional skills required for the job in question.

But who is going to judge someone’s competence level in terms of computer skills. I cannot count the number of times managers have told me that their employees were highly proficient and really familiar with office tools, and yet a few hours later, having asked some questions and looked at some documents, the mediocre quality of these documents and the inefficiency of the methods used have become abundantly clear. What a waste of time and energy! Everyone had their way of doing things, sure that they knew best. A kind of Babel’s Tower of different methods and different interpretations of what the software tools could do and what they were for. All too often I find myself thinking: if this manager had any idea just how under-productive his or her employees are and how many man-days are lost through lack of expertise, he or she would have an awful shock. But it’s practically impossible to say that to a manager – or indeed to tell a worker that his or her way of working is unsatisfactory.

Office automation experts alone can assess such skills, and they alone are capable of providing the kind of training that would result in standardised knowledge and methods.

In conclusion, I would ask managers to think about what computer skills their employees really have and how great a role such tools play in their work.

And, ultimately, to ask themselves this question: could I ramp up productivity in my department by training my staff better?