Microsoft increases funding for computer training

Microsoft will put increase its investment in an computer training program designed to train people in basic computer skills.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced Wednesday that the company will increase funding for a program that provides basic computer training and job skills to people in countries lacking those services.

Microsoft will put US$25.2 million more into its Unlimited Potential computer training program, bringing its investment to US$152 million, a total that includes both cash and software. Gates made the announcement before giving a keynote address at the Government Leaders Forum, a two-day conference sponsored by the company in Lisbon.

"This has been a very successful program over the last three years," Gates said. "Access to training and skills really can make the key difference."

The Unlimited Potential program, started in 2003, funds centers for basic technology training. The new funding will support 36,000 centers run by 126 nonprofit organizations in 64 countries, helping an estimated 15 million people, Microsoft said.

Microsoft has emphasized its commitment to helping the European Union meet its goal of creating 20 million new jobs by 2010. European government leaders speaking at the conference have said education in IT skills are need if European workers are to participate in the "knowledge economy," the buzzword for the transition to technology-based industries.

Gates met earlier in the day with Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, who has supported IT initiatives to improve the country's sluggish economy and troubled textile industry. Gates was expected to complete an agreement for Microsoft to work with Portugal's government on a handful of IT projects.

As part of the Unlimited Potential program, Microsoft and the Portuguese government have started a three-year plan to retrain workers formerly employed in the textile industry. As many as 10 percent of its 200,000 workers have lost their jobs due to competition from non-E.U. countries and new trade rules.

Under a three-year plan called the Technology, Innovation and Initiative Program, about 3,000 workers will be trained in computer skills for new jobs in the textile industry and in other areas. It's hoped workers can achieve employment in about three months after their training, said Antonio Amorim, president of the management board for the Technological Center for the Textile and Clothing Industries of Portugal.

"I think it will be very easy to place the people working in companies," Amorim said.

The European Commission estimates that one year of additional training or school can result in a 6.5 percent to 9 percent salary increase. While 45 percent of workers in the E.U. use a computer for their job, only 16 percent have received IT training paid for by their employer, and most have to learn on their own, according to the Commission.

In other countries, such as France, the Unlimited Potential program is working with the Association pour le droit A l'initiative A©conomique, an agency that aids new businesses, to provide a free three-day training course on how to start a small business. In Latin America, Microsoft has expanded its arrangement with the Organization of American States' Trust for the Americas Foundation to fund 11 more community technology centers (CTCs). Now, there are CTCs in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina.

When asked what the benefits of the educational programs bring Microsoft, Gates said there isn't a direct "dollar and cents" link.

"Really it's about the basic belief of Microsoft and what we stand for rather than any direct connection to the business we're able to do," Gates said.

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