A workforce smarter than a first grader

I recently bumped into someone who confessed that many of her coworkers (at a fairly large company) were probably no more computer-savvy than a first grader. Based on the examples we discussed, and also drawing from my direct experience with first graders’ PC acumen, I believe the claim to be true. This begs the question… would such people be employable today if they were to re-enter the workforce? If they had to pass employment screenings again for the same job, would they pass with their current level of computer knowledge and skill? Today, basic reading and writing skills are required of first graders, and many grade-schoolers are already remarkably proficient at what I consider core computer skills as well. In some cases, the children and grandchildren of some in the white-collar workforce may be better equipped, technology-wise, to apply for the position their parent or grandparent holds.

Now look at it from the employer’s perspective: would you hire a candidate for a corporate, white-collar job who couldn’t read or write? Probably not. So if writing and reading are non-negotiable employment skills, computing skills must be a close second in this day and age. Virtually nothing — reading and writing included — gets done in the modern office without a computer. If requisite computer skills are attainable at a first grade level, then one would hope our workforce is smarter than a first-grader. But I’m willing to place a large bet that there are drastic productivity drains in many of America’s corporations caused by tenured employees with pre-school technology skills.

So what to do? Wait for a generation or two to retire? Some I’ve spoken with advocate this approach, but I’m firmly opposed to it. For starters, that’s a lot of productivity lost during the remaining working years of those employees, especially since retirement for many has been postponed due to the economic state. Further, core computer skills are more important than ever for those entering or already in retirement. From the post office to drug stores, from airports to supermarkets, general computing technology has descended in force upon the modern way of life. Computer and Internet technologies continue to rapidly replace traditional methods for accessing information and conducting basic transactions. (Stuart Carlson’s insightful cartoon cleverly depicted this in 2005.) If an insufficiently skilled person is no longer in the workforce, that may relieve the former employer’s burden but it won’t help enable the retiree be more informed, productive, or self-sufficient with computer technology for the remainder of his or her life.

So let’s explain technology to these workers today. We’ll be doing our businesses’ bottom lines a favor while preparing our workforce for success in retirement. We could even hire some first graders as tutors.

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