In February 2009, Microsoft began partnering with state governments to distribute vouchers for free computer training and IT certification. Called Elevate America, the program was designed to help address one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history by improving the computer literacy of unemployed or under-skilled workers.

Florida, New York and Washington were the first among 32 states to partner with Microsoft during the two-year program, which ended in August 2010. Microsoft said 880,000 free e-learning and certification exam vouchers were distributed in order to help the millions of workers who will require training in basic- or intermediate-level IT skills to adapt to the shifting economy.

While Microsoft deemed the educational program a success, the training program also has shed light on how wide the digital divide has become in some of the nation’s communities. In fact, according to interviews Microsoft conducted with state officials in report of findings released this week, some community centers lacked the infrastructure to take full advantage of the free training courses.

Officials from rural states reported that many communities have no broadband Internet access, and that dial-up is inadequate to serve training needs. As one official remarked, “People really have no idea how big the digital divide is. If you have dial-up, you don’t [really] have Internet access.”

Even in communities where high-speed Internet access was available, people with little or no technology skills to build upon — such as those who had worked in manufacturing and construction jobs — weren’t even able to use a mouse, according to the interview findings.

Some libraries and training centers also lacked enough public computers to meet the demands of the training program.

In a 90-day window, the participating states and Washington, D.C., were able to distribute approximately 75 percent of the available vouchers. Many states partnered with organizations to hand them out at career centers or through online means. However, many of the vouchers went unused: The average redemption rate of the vouchers was 31 percent across all participating U.S. locations.

“Four of the states with the highest activation rates required customers to apply for vouchers in person at a local center and register in the state’s employment services information system,” the report stated. Online distribution methods, meanwhile, tended to bring in skilled IT workers who needed additional training.

There was also a gender gap identified in the digital divide. Men made up 59 percent of the unemployed workforce in 2009, but only 46 percent of Elevate America participants were male. And although the majority of participants were women, they comprised only 25 percent of those seeking IT professional training courses.

“As with any new program, there were communication gaps, technology glitches, bureaucratic roadblocks and procedural challenges,” according to the report. “When Microsoft launched the program, the capacity of the states and D.C. to engage was not fully understood. Looking back, the voucher effort might have had even greater impact if nonprofit partners in local communities had been given an active role at the outset.”

Nicole Danna  |  Contributing Writer

Nicole Danna is a freelance writer based in Florida.