Top tech companies trying to improve digital skills in border communities

Texas

Pandemic pushed Americans toward devices that allow them to work remotely, and that's a first step in enhancing their tech skills, experts say

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — When it comes to working with technology, some people reach for a painkiller rather than learn the benefits of regularly taking vitamins, JJ Childress says.

“It’s hard to change because change is painful,” says the community engagement management for Microsoft Corp. “We have learned a lot about empathy during this pandemic. I think we’ve all gotten a little bit closer even though we’re apart.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to have employees work from home and to use tools like Zoom and Teams to meet. But rather than scramble to keep the operation going during a crisis, businesses and institutions should embrace technology and foster the teaching of digital proficiencies, he and other participants of the Digital El Paso Summit said on Thursday.

The two-day summit is focusing on efforts to increase public broadband access and help schools and medical institutions expand online outreach and tech training. Industry giants like Cisco, Apple and Intel are behind the effort. Microsoft is present in El Paso schools through its TechSpark and TEALS programs.

TEALS brings computer professionals to public school classrooms in exercises that teach new skills to both students and teachers.

Intel is building easy-to-use apps tailored to underserved communities, investing in public education and trying to improve connectivity, said Elizabeth McGee, director of innovation and engagement for Intel.

Apple previously funded efforts to improve technology in public schools and health institutions and is now trying to foster that environment in small businesses.

“The environment that you build allows people to grown and innovate,” said Monte Rector, Apple’s director of innovation. “Make sure your employees aren’t afraid (of new technologies), that they believe this will help them. Embracing it is just as important as the tools” handed to the workers.

El Paso is also part of a statewide initiative to increase the percentage of households with access to the internet, said former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

“COVID has exposed major gaps in affordability and adoption (of fast-speed internet). Some of our worst connected cities are in Texas,” she said, naming Pharr, Brownsville, Tyler and Harlingen.

El Paso also lags the state, with less than 60% of its households having such connections, said Spellings, president and CEO of the Texas 2036 Initiative.

The summit continues on Friday.

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