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Computer training and the workplace: a little goes a long way.

Computer Training and the Workplace: A Little Goes a Long Way

Computers are popping up on desks and in workplaces all through American industry like flowers in the spring. They represent the most widespread technological innovation of our time, since they are used in virtually every industry and in 140 occupations.

One worker in eight now uses a computer, and this number is growing rapidly. In 1984, over 2 million new computers were put into use, which meant that a roughly equal number of workers had to be trained to use them--a figure only slightly smaller than the number of high-school graduates that year.

Yet, despite the apprehensions of educators and industrialists that training in this new high-technology field would make great demands on the school system, most workers involved with computers learn to use them very quickly; a few hours to a few weeks of formal fraining, mostly provided by their employers, is usually enough. Only a small training, mostly provided by their employers, training.

These are the major conclusions of a study by the National Institute for Work and Learning. The study was done for the National Commission for Employment Policy, which initiated it to provide information for planning education and training for this new technology.

In order to get a realistic picture of the training requirements, the study identified each occupation in which computers are used, and the staff interviewed people who would tell what the workers do with computers and how they learn to do it. There have been many attempts to prescribe the education and training needed in the computer age, but this is the first study in which these basic questions were asked for each occupation involved.

Interviews were conducted with employers, workers, professional societies, unions, computer manufacturers, and schools. Questions asked about the training included the following:

Where is it given?

How long does the formal training take?

How soon after the training does the worker achieve proficiency?

Who pays for the training?

How does the training given new entrants differ from that for present employees?

What does current practice tell us about how to provide training in the future?

The findings on each occupation are included in the report. It is difficult to generalize about the diverse situations in so many occupations; each has its own history and traditions, work content, industrial attachments, union or professional organizations, and traditional means of education or training, to which the new skill requirements imposed by the computer must be added. Training methods differ within each occupation. There is usually no standard method. Nevertheless, a few broad patterns of training emerge from this review.

Workers using computers fall into three groups with respect to the training they need, as shown in the accompanying box. Those in the first group require extensive computer training. The workers in the second and third groups use computers as tools, but their computer skills are a minor addition to their professional or craft skills; many people in these occupations never use a computer at all. These two groups differ in that some workers in the second group of occupations occasionally write programs, while workers in the third group only use available software.

Group I: Occupations Requiring Extensive Computer Training

This group includes the engineers and scientists who design the computer equipment; computer systems programmers, who write the internal operating programs; applications programmers, who create the applications software; computer systems analysts; computer repairers; programmers of numerically controlled machine tools; and college teachers of computer science. Each requires quite different training, but in each case the training takes years and usually involves a combination of formal schooling and experience. Altogether, this group accounted for about 0.6 percent of all workers in the United States and about 5 percent of those using computers. These are rapidly growing occupations, but even by 1995 they are projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to amount to only 1 percent of all workers.

Group II: Occupations in Which Some Workers May Need To Learn How To Program Computers

Some workers in these occupations use computers. They usually use software already available for calculating, word processing, modeling, or simulation, but some of them may have to be able to write computer programs or modify existing programs. They are primarily in the scientific and technical occupations--engineering, natural and social sciences, statistics, mathematics --technician occupations associated with them, and a few other professional occupations such as architect, accountant, auditor, urban and regional planner, and medical records administrator. Only a few of these computer users write programs; they account for 5 to 10 percent of all computer users and about 1 percent of all workers.

Whether or not a worker has to write programs depends, of course, on whether the necessary software is already available. In the intensely competitive software market, producers vie with each other to provide user-friendly programs for every application likely to attract customers. For example, a single recent issue of Amstat News (March 1985), published by the American Statistical Association, contained 20 advertisements for statistical software packages, each designed to perform a variety of standard statistical calculations. As another example, an inventory of agricultural software lists over 1,700 agricultural computer programs intended for use by farmers. There are many programs for general business applications.

Not all applications offer a potential market large enough to induce a vendor to produce a program, but even this does not necessarily mean that computer users have to be able to write their own programs. Many workers in occupations in Group II are in colleges, universities, or other organizations where expert programmers or computer science teachers are employed and can call on one of them to write a new program for a special purpose. In some cases, they may be able to borrow a program from a colleague or get a graduate assistant, a student, or a technician to write one. Thus there are a variety of ways in which programs can be made available to meet a user's needs.

This should not be taken to imply that writing computer programs is so difficult or distasteful that users fall back on doing it themselves only as a last resort. Many rise to the intellectual challenge. If no program is available, they write one; if they think existing programs are awkward or inefficient or do not yield desirable byproducts, they modify them or write better ones.

The programming skills required by workers in Group II are not nearly at the level required of professional applications programmers, although some individuals in Group II occupations may attain such skill levels. They write programs mostly in high-level languages such as COBOL, FORTRAN, or BASIC, rather than in the assembler languages used by professional programmers. Because programming is an extra skill for them, subordinate to their main professional interests, few have the motivation or time to spend in developing this skill beyond that needed to get the work done.

Members of these occupations have learned programming in a variety of ways, including one-semester or longer courses in vocational or technical schools or in 2-year or 4-year colleges, 1- to 2-week courses (or a series of several such brief courses) given by employers or computer manufacturers, self-learning from manuals or computer-based instruction, or just learning from friends. College students in these fields frequently take one or more programming courses in the computer sciences department.

Whatever the method of introductory training, one thing is essential: Experience after training. This experience may be gained in the computer laboratory in school or on the job. Learning is made easier if the student has someone to turn to for help--a friend, colleague, instructor, or supervisor.

Group III: Occupations Requiring Only Brief Training in Operating Computers

Workers in this group require only training in operating computers with software already available. They amount to more than 80 percent of workers who use computers and include most of the managerial, clerical, sales, and industrial process workers who use computers. Some of the common computer applications used by these workers include word processing, used by typists, secretaries, journalists, and anyone else who does extensive writing; business office data processing such as payrolls, accounts receivable, inventories, production, shipments, work in process, or spead sheets; information storage and retrieval, used by librarians to keep records of books, by reservations clerks or agents to record space available and reservations made, by securities salespeople and insurance company employees to look up current securities prices or the status of customers' accounts, or by researchers to look up publications or laws and legal rulings on any subject; making calculations or applying statistical techniques to data, used by statistical clerks, estimators, and technicians; automated control of industrial processes, used by operators in electric generating plants, petroleum refineries, or chemical factories; and computer-assisted design and drafting, used by commercial artists, industrial designers, and drafters.

These workers can learn their computer skills in anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks of training--a testimony to the ingenuity with which computer manufacturers and software producers have attacked the problem of making the systems "user friendly.' Much of this training is given on the job or in brief courses provided by employers, manufacturers of equipment, unions, or schools.

In some cases, the computer training is incorporated into a comprehensive training program for the occupation that takes considerably longer than a few weeks; but the time spent in learning the necessary computer skills is only a small part of the total. For example, the training of library technicians includes many aspects of library organization and procedures, including the classification systems for books and the methods of recordkeeping for books loaned out; the ways in which computers are used to locate books or control borrowing are an integral part of this learning, but the actual operation on the computer keyboard to call up information is a minimal skill in this broader context.

In addition to the brief formal training that is the most common method of learning, workers need an additional period of working with the computer on the job to perfect their skills. The time required to attain proficiency depends on many factors: The difficulty of the subject matter with which the worker is dealing and his or her familiarity with it; the worker's familiarity, facility, and previous experience with computers; the amount of time the worker spends using the computer (whether constantly, such as a typist using word processing all day, or only occasionally, as when a college professor uses word processing to write one or two articles a year); and whether the work involves all the operations with frequency, or whether some operations are required only infrequently and are therefore not encountered or learned until a long time after the worker begins using the computer. Because of these variables and because proficiency means different things in different situations, it is difficult to generalize on the number of weeks or months required to attain proficiency. The learning period ranges from a few weeks to 6 months or more.

People planning to enter these occupations can enhance their employability by studying computer-related skills in school. Word processing, for example, is taught in secondary and postsecondary schools and is useful for secretaries, typists, writers, journalists, and workers in a variety of professional, managerial, and sales occupations. Electronics and computer technology courses, taught in vocational and technical schools and 2- and 4-year colleges, provide a good background for learning such occupations as telephone central office technician, computer operator, computer repairer, and avionics repairer.

Even in these occupations, at least a few workers in each have probably written a computer program related to their job. For this reason, the distinction made between Group II and Group III, based on whether some members of the occupation write programs, becomes a little hazy at the edges. Nevertheless, it is worth retaining, because people interested in preparing to enter occupations in Group II have to consider whether to get training in programming as part of their initial course work or to wait until the need to program actually arises and then take the training, while those interested in Group III occupations are not confronted with this problem.

In summary, about 1 in 8 of all workers now uses a computer. Of these, about 5 percent need extensive computer training. Less than 10 percent need to learn programming. All the rest--more than 4 out of 5 of all who use computers--are in occupations where using computers means only operating them; these workers learn the necessary skills in a few hours to a few weeks of training, most of which is given on the job or by manufacturers of the equipment.

It may seem paradoxical that a technology many people associate with abstruse mathematics and electronics could have attained such widespread use with relatively little special education and training. But such innovations as the automobile, television, and the telephone have become nearly universal while requiring relatively few highly trained workers--mostly engineers and craft workers--to manufacture, install, and repair them. Computers are becoming prevalent mainly because they have been constantly and ingeniously improved to make them easy to use.

How To Get the Report

Training for Work in the Computer Age: How Workers Who Use Computers Get Their Training is available while supplies last from the National Institute for Work and Learning, 1200 18th Street NW., Suite 316, Washington, D.C. 20036. Please include a self-addressed mailing label.

Early in 1986, Peterson's Guides will publish a book based on this report designed as a career guidance and planning reference for students, teachers, counselors, parents, and workers who are concerned about what computer training is needed and who provides the training in 140 occupations.

Table: Workers Who Use Computers
COPYRIGHT 1985 U.S. Government Printing Office
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Author:Goldstein, Harold; Fraser, Bryna Shore
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1985
Words:2284
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