Older workers among those looking to improve computer literacy

WOODSTOCK – Ron Ecklund used to type as slow as a snail moved.

But then the 51-year-old Woodstock resident decided to try out the Mavis Beacon typing program on the Woodstock Public Library’s computers.

“Within two weeks, I was hitting little scores,” he said. “They would tell you that lesson was 12 words a minute and this lesson was 18. … I noticed my average creeping up.

“Then one day I wasn’t even reading what I was typing anymore. I was just like ... ,” Ecklund paused and drummed his fingers rapidly against the table before continuing, “and then all of a sudden boom, it was 65.”

His increased ease has changed the way he does a lot of things.

He carries around a flash drive with his medical records, photos his son sends him, articles he’s interested in and his personal notes and writing.

Ecklund, who has bipolar disorder and has pain problems from his years working on a pharmaceutical factory line, also is thinking of returning to the workforce, preferably as an executive assistant or with an organization like Thresholds.

He spent three years with the nonprofit, working with the homeless and mentally ill, and responding to emails and filling out billing forms was a never-ending frustration.

“They’re everywhere, and if you don’t cope with them, you get left behind,” Ecklund said. “I don’t feel good or bad about that. I’m just like I don’t want to get left behind economically or feeling I could contribute to the community.”

Computers were in 78.9 percent of U.S. households in 2012, up from 8.2 percent in 1984, the first year the U.S. Census Bureau starting tracking it.

And they’re a lot more powerful now, too.

The most popular computer in 1984 was the Commodore 64, which had 64 kilobytes of memory, according to the Census Bureau. An iPhone has about 16,000 times that.

The Internet also has become ubiquitous, with 74.8 percent hooked up in 2012 compared to 18 percent in 1997.

But for the computer illiterate, the rise of the computer is making life difficult.

“Technology and computers are inescapable in today’s world, so people who thought they never had a need for it need help,” said Martha Hansen, a reference librarian at the Woodstock Public Library and its network administrator.

Hansen spends a lot more of her time at the reference desk answering technology questions, helping people download ebooks, apply for jobs online and even pay their taxes.

The state of Illinois sent out fewer paper copies of tax forms this year, and the library is getting half the federal forms it got five years ago, she said.

Beth Ryan, another of the library’s reference librarians, once saw a patron spend two hours filling out an application for an entry-level janitorial position, and then when he hit submit, the page told him it had timed out and he had to start over.

“It’s extremely frustrating for people who won’t even be touching a computer in their jobs,” Hansen said.

And more and more jobs require workers to have basic computer skills, including manufacturing jobs and nursing assistants, said Julie Courtney, the director of the McHenry County Workforce Network.

The organization – along with libraries and county colleges – offers computer training courses aimed at prepping workers for the digital age through industry-specific training and basic computer courses.

The classes aren’t just being used by older workers, Courtney said. It’s also former factory or trade workers and people with language barriers that need the help.

The Woodstock Public Library classes are steadily full, Hansen said.

“We could offer more, but we’re limited in time and space and staff,” she said. “Everything is a balance. At this point, we’re doing the best we can, but it’s something to consider as the needs go on.”

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