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

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.