After 34 years in the restaurant business, Theodore Cunningham was ready to do something different.
And he knew that improving his computer know-how was vital to developing a skill set desirable to employers in fields outside of food service.
Cunningham will get a chance to enhance his computer capabilities as the first Utahn to get a voucher from Microsoft that allows recipients to receive free or low-cost online technology training and certification. The software giant plans to distribute 5,625 vouchers in Utah.
"This is huge for me," said the 50-year-old Tooele resident. "I feel like I'm a marketable person. To get into the computer age makes me that much more marketable."
Having a well-educated, well-trained work force is one ambition of state agencies, which embraced Microsoft's "Elevate America" initiative. Utah becomes the 28th state involved in the program, announced in February with a goal of providing up to one million vouchers nationwide over the next three years for Microsoft e-Learning courses and certification in selected Microsoft specialties.
"In a world increasingly dependent on technology, we need to ensure we prepare everybody from the bottom up," said Spencer Eccles, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development and a board member of the Utah College of Applied Technology, which provides the program's coursework. "Economic development grows as the work force increases its skills. ... Raising the capabilities of everyone is important."
It also is important to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, whose employment counselors encounter people daily who are out of work and eager to upgrade their skills so they can get onto a payroll. "We'll make referrals to our clients at [the department's] One-Stop Center for additional skills' training," said Karla Aguirre, director of the agency's Workforce Development Program.
Microsoft engineering director Paul Mayfield, based in Lehi, could not put a figure on the dollar value of the vouchers, which will be available for 90 days -- through Aug. 24. He said Elevate America was an example of Microsoft's community involvement and eagerness to get involved in public-private partnerships that help people participate in a more competitive working world.
"Within a few years," he said, "75 percent of jobs will require a basic level of technological skills."
Microsoft is offering the vouchers in three blocs:
» 2,500 for courses that provide six to eight lessons on any Microsoft Office 2003 or 2007 programs
» 2,500 vouchers for Microsoft certification exams
» 635 vouchers for courses geared to information technology professionals
Cunningham will use his voucher to take an online information technology course at Tooele Applied Technology Center, one of eight state ATCs in the program. It was there that he started taking computer courses, attracting the attention of state officials who nominated him for the first voucher.
Others should follow his lead, Cunningham said.
"If anybody chooses not to, they need to take a second look at it," he said. "Any time you get free education and Microsoft certification, you have to take it."
The 5,625 free online training vouchers can be obtained from the Utah College of Applied Technology's website, www.ucat.edu, by clicking on the Elevate America banner.