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How to beef up your tech skills to stay competitive

Here's a primer on how to become more computer-savvy, whether you're a novice or an experienced user.

NEW YORK - Even the most hardened technophobes are looking for ways to beef up their computer skills amid the downturn. But many don't know where to start.

Laid off workers are hoping to get better with technology to find new jobs. And people still in the work force want to keep their positions by staying up-to-date with the latest trends.

Where to begin? Here's a primer on how to become more computer-savvy, whether you're a novice or an experienced user:


Before you open a book or sign up for computer training classes, determine what skills you'll need in your career or prospective job. Will bosses expect you to be a wizard with spreadsheets, for example, or do you only need to know the basics of everyday tools such as Microsoft Word or PowerPoint? Find out by asking employers directly, if possible.

Robert Kelley, an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, suggests that applicants set up informational interviews with the companies they're interested in.

That way, they can learn the specific computer skills and experiences needed for the position, while also making a connection with the employer.

If you can't set up such an interview, take a look at online job postings in your desired field. Many list specific computer requirements, says David S. Murphy, membership director of the International Association of Information Technology Trainers.

Then assess your skills, and decide what additional training you might need.


If you're a computer novice, start by spending time on a computer at a public library, says Jean Riescher Westcott, the co-author of "Digitally Daunted: The Consumer's Guide to Taking Control of the Technology in Your Life."

Most libraries offer free courses on a range of topics. If you've already mastered word processing and the Internet, for example, try taking classes on social networking and databases.

Community colleges and local governments also offer courses for free or at a nominal cost, in most cases.

Joe McCarron, a 45-year-old Huntington Beach, Calif. resident, recently enrolled in a variety of computer classes at a local continuing education school in his area. The cost: $10 each.

Last month, McCarron lost his job as a senior vice president and director of sales at a lumber supply company that went out of business. He worked there 23 years, and joined long before computers were used.

So, he's now taking classes on Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access, and other common workplace programs. In his program, students have their own workstations and follow along with an instructor. McCarron says the courses have been useful, and should help him land another job.

The difficult part: admitting that he needed some additional training.

"It's hard to go back to school at 45 and say, 'Yeah I need help,'" he says.


Indeed, computer trainers say fear can be one of the biggest roadblocks to learning more about technology.

Many computer users, especially beginners, are hesitant to explore their machines for fear of damaging them.

But one of the best ways to learn about technology is to simply push buttons and play around.

Paul Draper, a Las Vegas anthropologist and magician, says he spent the past month learning about social networking sites like LinkedIn and Google Wave simply by experimenting with them.

"I realized that computers don't come with a button called 'push this button and everything gets destroyed,'" he says. "In order to actually hurt the computer, you have to make a series of bad mistakes."


But if you still feel squeamish around PCs and would prefer some one-on-one coaching, reach out to younger family members, high school students and - yes - even the geeky 12-year-old tech whiz down the road.

"There's plenty of kids who are in high school or college who would be willing to give you a tutorial," says Carnegie Mellon's Kelley.

Many may even be willing to assist for free.

But it can also be helpful to set up some kind of barter relationship with friends and co-workers, Kelley says.

So, if you're good at running marathons, and a friend knows all about accounting programs, set up an exchange where you'll be a run buddy, if he or she will be your "Excel buddy," he says.


To gain an edge, try to learn skills that are also in strong demand these days.

Businesses are becoming more numbers-driven, and they need employees who can quickly analyze data to come up with conclusions, says Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

"When I talk to managers and executives, one of the main things I hear is that, 'We need people who can do analysis, who can think quantitatively," he says. "This is a skill that just isn't going away."

Companies also value employees who can learn computer skills that increase sales or help to cut costs and create more efficient operations, Kelley says.

So, for example, if you learn to use a program that scans receipts into the computer, so the company doesn't need to physically store them, that could be valuable, he says.

The bottom line: If you want to master a new skill, don't be afraid to speak up, says Riescher Westcott, the "Digitally Daunted" co-author.

Computer nerds are friendly, she says, and generally willing to dole out advice.

"Geeks are enthusiastic," she says. "As long as you approach it like, 'Oh my god, how do you know all this stuff?' they love to share."

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