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Musings, Tech

Computer Literacy in the Workplace

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in a global recession. People are losing their jobs left and right due to cut backs and companies folding. These are often skilled people who would be an asset to any company who could afford to have them on staff. Although it upsets me that these people are losing their jobs, what is starting to get me more and more riled up is the number of people in jobs that they don’t have the skills or competency level to do as effectively as someone else who is potentially out of work. People in office jobs that require them to use a computer every single day often have computer literacy levels FAR below what should be required.

I work in IT support. I see it every day. Other people I know in IT support see it too, some to a worse degree than me. I know people who have more than adequate IT skills who are either out of work or stuck in a job far below their station. But who is to blame? Well it’s not the computer illiterate, oh no. I accept that some people will never be able to use a computer. I suck at sports. I always have and I always will. It’s the companies that are to blame here. So many companies only consider computer literacy as an afterthought when hiring new staff which begs the question; if they had run some kind of computer literacy test prior to hiring people how much more productive would the staff and, in turn, the company be? I would wager a noticeable amount.

There needs to be some sort of  international standard computer literacy test that companies can use to test potential employees. I’m not talking about difficult stuff here. I mean the basics. It wouldn’t be a hard thing to impliment either. At the time of the second interview your applicant would sit down at a computer and carry out a series of pre-determined tasks under the watchful eye of a manager and perhaps, if the company can spare them, a member of the IT department. Of course the manager of the potential employee’s department would be able to make the final call but the information provided by the test and the official opinion of the IT department would give a vital insight into the person’s potential productivity.

Test tasks could be as simple as the following:

  • Correctly start up, log on to and shut down the computer.
  • Copy and paste a file into a pre-determined folder. Repeat with multiple files.
  • Re-name a file in a pre-determined folder.
  • Minimise, maximise and re-size a window.
  • Save a document from a Microsoft Office application into a pre-determined folder and Save another copy with a different name somewhere else. (Demonstrating an understanding of “Save” and “Save as…” )
  • Print a Microsoft Office document to a pre-determined printer (may or may not be the default printer).
  • Send an e-mail with an attachment.
  • Open a web browser and navigate to a pre-determined website.
  • Copy and paste text into a document or e-mail.
  • Switch between open applications.
  • Connect to a wireless network (if this will be a common task in the applicant’s role, i.e if they are going to be a mobile/laptop user)
  • Identify a USB port.

It should take no longer than 10 minutes to run through that test but the insight it will provide will be invaluable. All the tasks in that list are things the average 12 year old would be able to do without much of a problem and they can be applied to either PC or Mac. It’s very much a win/win scenario. People with good IT skills will be able to get the jobs they deserve and companies will get efficient, productive staff. Changes or advances in the IT infrastructure would be a lot less painful and would take less time. IT departments would be free to concentrate on their core responsibilities rather than endure hours of hand-holding.



  1. Jason - August 19, 2009 11:35 am

    I understand where you are coming from. This is why I left tech support and went into web design.

    I used to work in a hospital and you would think that doctors would have some sort of common sense.

    This is why I changed profession.

    Me: Can you tell me the problem is.
    Them: The computer doesn’t work.
    Me: OK, Can you tell me what the color the power light is on the monitor.
    Them: Power Light?
    Me: … A little LCD bulb on the front.
    Them: … what?
    Me: It will either be off, flashing orange or green.
    Them: Oh that! Its flashing orange.
    Me: OK great, look for a similar light on your computer. Is it on?
    Them: No
    Me: Can you press the power button.
    Them: … do you really think I haven’t tried that?
    Me: Please… humor me.
    Them: Fine.. nope nothing.
    Me: Is it plugged in?
    Them: Ofcourse it is.
    Me: Is the plug on?
    Them: yes, I am not stupid!
    Me: Fine, I will be right over, its a little walk, should be there soon.

    This was a remote user a mile away from the main hospital. I had to get the damn train to see them. Get there, look at the computer. It isn’t working. Checked the plug… plugged in.. NOT SWITCHED on…

    For effect I said ‘hmmm’, waved the person over, then in super slow motion reached down and switched the plug on. The computer sprung into life… their response. ‘Oh…’, I got no thank you, no appology, nothing. This was a doctor on 40k+ a year… after this I decided I had had enough.

    The amount of calls I got during my short stint as a technician about saving files, opening files, mail merging etc was insane. The hospital could have halved the tech support team if they gave the staff even the most basic lessons in computing.

  2. Dan Schonhaar - August 19, 2009 11:51 am

    I’ve come across situations like the one you described but many of them aren’t so much to do with computer illiteracy as they are to do with just general common sense failures and the mentality of “We have an IT department so I don’t need to think about this problem at all. I just get the nerds to fix it.” I dare bet diamonds if this same thing happened with his home PC he would have solved the issue himself inside 30 seconds.

    I die a little bit inside every time I have to do this:

    Me: Open up a web browser window for me.
    Them: How do I do that then?
    Me: *cringes* Open the internet.

  3. Olly - August 19, 2009 2:03 pm


    I’ve had EXACTLY the same problem in the past too, and is EXACTLY why i’m no not in tech support.

    I spent most of my tech-support-life telling people how to use a PC not fixing problems at all!

    Hear hear to the standard computer literacy testing!

  4. Magua - August 19, 2009 3:44 pm

    The problems that potentially will arise from such a test could, without consideration, become vastly over complicated very quickly. The aptitude of the candidate to perform the role is key, but any secondaries are usually overlooked. For example: Accountant role advertised – The candidate has many years experience, can easily understand the role and perform in it. Can they use the tools to be able to do their job? According to their C.V. they are very capable of doing so.
    Computers are not always their “tools”, so it is a secondary. They are still one of the smartest people you could meet academically though.

    Following that, you also have to be very careful how you advertise the job role and how you interview for it.
    You must be very careful not to be seen to be discriminating – positively or negatively.

    “We want a keen young trainee” – whoops, that’s age discrimination.
    “Man needed for heavy lifting” – nope, that’s sex discrimination.
    You can only do that if a person’s sex is relevant to the job, for example you need a man to clean male toilets. It could be argued that it is unfair to dimiss someone from a profession on the basis they are not familiar with certain aspects of their environment. See next point:-
    Coming back to the point, an accountant sits in his/her office and scribbles away with pencil and paper, that’s all they need. They do need however, to send it off a fax to someone else to continue the work in the chain. Are we to punish them for having to ask for assistance when they are struggling? If it is the 16th time in a week, maybe the reporting procedures should be followed by the support technician.
    If i was scorned at for being brave enough to ask for help from someone when i struggled, i would probably file a complaint on grounds of bullying.
    Bullying in a workplace – Oh dear! And i could probably make it stick too, with a half decent lawyer which the firm provides[Common within business], or through a trade-union.
    Some people are just making it difficult for themselves by their own lack of common sense though, but unfortunately that’s not a requirement within business. If it was, bankers would not be in the trouble they are now, and by trouble i mean they only get 7% rise instead of the normal 15% per year but thats a different story!

    During interview, you need to be very careful what kind of questions you ask people. It’s natural to want to know as much as possible about someone that may join your business, but you can’t be seen to be discriminating. If you are, you are leaving yourself open to an employment tribunal.
    The four most obvious areas to be aware of are sex, age, disability and race.
    As a general rule don’t ask any question unless it will help you make a decision on employing this person. But it’s against the law to ask a discriminatory question – so don’t.

    So in general, aptitude tests are efficient means of singling out a specific role, but unfortunately, you’ll find the majority of issues come from someone whom their issue/problem is not a main directive of their job specification nor is it their responsibility to ensure the “tools” work. They don’t get paid to test the buildings equipment, they get paid to file paper in cabinets, stamp paper with rubber & ink.
    The main key to getting round all of this, is not to make everyone take test after test, but ensure they are capable in the first place through a depicted and severe interview process. With the amount of money companies are spending on getting a structured interview researched for them, they could well get them to ensure all roles are advertised correctly, and the candidates skills are really tested so the employer knows who actually is suitable.

  5. Dan Schonhaar - August 19, 2009 4:21 pm

    I’m not so sure the test could be construed as discrimination. You’d only test applicants to a job in which the use of a computer was key in their day to day work and it could always be overridden by the department manager’s assessment on weather they are more than proficient in the core role (like in your accountant scenario, Except most accounts departments are now 100% computer based).

    Competency tests at interview time are nothing new and if you advertise that good computer skills are a must for the job then a computer based competency test would be more than acceptable. Computers are becoming more and more crucial to core job responsibilities every day. Sooner or later it will be nigh on impossible for someone (even if they understand the core role perfectly) to do their job unless they have these basic computer skills.

    Where you could potentially find yourself in hot water, however is if you begin , consciously or not, discriminating against the non-computer literate staff hired prior to the tests being introduced. You couldn’t test them and then fire them if they didn’t pass because they weren’t hired under that stipulation. A semi-decent workaround, though, would be to send these staff away for basic IT training days to bring their skills more into line with what is expected.

  6. kat neville - August 19, 2009 4:35 pm

    I was given a personality test at my last job interview. It was interesting, actually! In web design, it’s not uncommon to give candidates a test (I have done a layout one there at the office before, and also done some take-home tests). If there is a requirement, as long as you let them know before hand that there’s a short test on basic computers, I don’t think most people would have a problem with it.

  7. Stu - August 19, 2009 4:59 pm

    When I lived in California I applied for a job at a company now owned by Microsoft called Tellme. They deal with voice technologies for cell phones. Pretty interesting stuff actually.

    Before I got an interview in person I was given an assignment to code and demonstrate to them. Once I’d done this I had an interview over the phone, followed by another over AOL Instant Messenger (very unusual) that involved typing out answers to various programming questions posed to me.

    Once I’d passed those I was called in for two interviews at the office in Mountain View (down the road from Google). In the first one I was asked how I would solve a programming problem. In the second interview I was asked to solve the same programming problem. I made the mistake of mentioning that I’d already done it and so I was asked a much more theoretical question (I’ll paste it below).

    I passed all of these tests and still ended up not getting the job because of a US Visa issue, but the tests were an extremely important part of the interview process. Without passing these there would be very little in hiring a person. I can only see good things coming out of testing people before hiring them. It should be standard for everyone. Definitely not on the level I’ve detailed of my own experience, but certainly there should be _something_ done to check this person can send an email.

    — Question I was asked at Tellme —
    Assume that two identical robots land from two different flights with the help of parachutes (at different points) on an infinite line.

    Each robot leaves its parachute on landing and goes in search of the other robot. The problem is to write one program which will be executed by _both_ the robots that makes it possible for the robots to meet. You don’t know which way the other robot was dropped on the line, and they both move at the same speed.

    You have the following instructions at your disposal to write the program:
    1) Step L – makes the robot take one step towards left
    2) Step R – makes the robot take one step towards right
    3) goto label – jump to a label or subroutine containing instructions
    4) if parachute – instruction, where |parachute| is a boolean which will be true when a robot senses a parachute. It will be true as long as the robot is near it. The moment it takes a step towards left or right after sensing it, then P will become false.

    Can you write a program that makes the robots meet.

  8. magua - August 19, 2009 5:04 pm

    I read this one the other day, which is why after talking with Dan i was sceptical of it being done professionally.

    Connecticut v. Teal (1982) – Basically it was a case where there was ‘adverse’ effect on the tests on a multi screening process. There was no such screening later.

    So in real terms what it meant was that 100 candidates applied, 50 got through, the 50 that didn’t were impacted unfairly by the selection tests, and then afterwards the remaining 50 whom got through were then deemed as not required any further adverse tests.
    Sounds fair to me, in many ways, but it was deemed illegal not to have the same structure and allowance per each stage of the process. Unfortunately, in the day of sueing everyone who breathes, this is easily won if you can prove it discriminates even slightly about your ability.
    Some of the evidence to suggest it was unfair in that trial was that some of the candidates had not had training in the “use of certain experience”.. i take that to mean in lawyer terms the equipment used also. So any ‘test’ of their skills is unjust and automatically discounted their relevent skills because of smaller details.

    I’ll dig some more out on it too. Thanks Dan for getting me thinking about all this the other day 🙂

  9. Dan Schonhaar - August 19, 2009 5:31 pm

    @Stu – You just made my brain melt.

    @Magua – So rejecting an applicant for a job because they don’t have experience using a particular tool/piece of software/protocol when another applicant does have that experience is is okay, but testing for these differences is illegal?

    I gotta tell you, these people have some serious balls filing lawsuits like that.

  10. Amy Mahon - August 19, 2009 5:36 pm

    In college, people figured out that I was very computer literate and would always ask me to format their computers, get rid of viruses, spyware, and all that fun stuff. So many people didn’t even know what folder they downloaded stuff to, how to remove programs, how to troubleshoot.

    On the other hand, I love how there are seniors computer classes. It’s never too late to learn. I think literacy testing is a great idea, especially for receptionist / secretarial jobs.

  11. magua - August 19, 2009 5:48 pm

    @Dan – Pretty much. I don’t agree with it entirely, i do think it would need regulating if it was to be done but refering to my original post, these things can get overly complicated very quickly! As in this case.

  12. Dan Schonhaar - August 19, 2009 6:02 pm

    You make a good point. The odd sore loser, as with any competency test, could choose to get a hot-shot lawyer and file a ridiculous lawsuit.

    Surely though any test that can reveal a genuine, vocational advantage to one applicant over another can only be a good thing.

  13. magua - August 19, 2009 6:08 pm

    I found this one funny from the US again:

    Johnson v. Transportation Agency, Santa Clara County, CA (1987)

    * Man scored higher than woman on job related-test
    * Woman hired
    * Man sued because he wasn’t hired
    * Court ruled in favor of the woman because man didn’t outscore her by much
    o implies that if roughly a tie, okay to use minority status as tie-breaker
    o not clear about how close is close enough

  14. Dan Schonhaar - August 21, 2009 10:13 am

    That could have easily been avoided if there was a clause in the application form that stated that competency test scores were used as guides only and may not lead to the applicant ultimately being hired.

  15. magua - November 30, 2009 12:53 am

    Just been browsing this site i was linked to from a regular site i view and it immediately reminded me of this thread and it amused me, a little at least.

    Caller: “My email isn’t working!”

    Me: “Okay, what seems to be the problem?”

    Caller: “I already said, my email isn’t working!”

    Me: “Okay, so is it not sending email, or is it not opening?”

    Caller: “It’s not sending email. This is pathetic! I don’t have
    time for this!”

    Me: “I am here to help you. Does it say ‘connected’ at the lower right hand of the screen?”

    Caller: “I don’t know, this isn’t my job! It’s yours, so fix it!”

    Me: “I am trying to, sir, but I will need your help with fixing this issue remotely.”

    Caller: “No, that’s not what I get paid to do. I am an accountant! I’m not supposed to know how to use a computer!”

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