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May 2001     Vol. 2, no. 5

Working with computers

Katherine Marshall

Long gone, but still remembered by many, are typewriters, typing pools, carbon copies, adding machines and physical mail boxes. The ubiquitous personal computer has changed all this and revolutionized the workplace. Furthermore, most workers today go well beyond using their computer as a mere typewriter or calculator.

As intriguing as this computer-use revolution may be, embracing information and communication technology (ICT) is viewed as an essential ingredient for both businesses and individuals to remain competitive in today's knowledge-based economy. "[A]ccess to and development of information, communication and e-commerce resources are increasingly viewed as crucial for economic and social development." (OECD, 2001). It is argued that access to and use of ICTs can increase productivity and efficiency, enhance knowledge and skill levels, and improve the quality of work life (ILO, 2000).

Concerns have been raised, however, over the uneven use of ICTs—the "digital divide"—between and within countries. For example, only 6% of the world's population has ever logged onto the Internet, and close to 90% of them are from industrialized countries (ILO, 2000). Digital divides have been documented within industrialized countries as well—among individuals, households, businesses and geographic regions.

This paper examines the extent of computer use by Canadian workers (see Data source and definitions): which workers are most likely to use a computer at their job, how often they use it, what they use it for, and how they learned their computing skills.

Computer use soars

In a mere decade, the proportion of workers using a computer at their main job has risen from 33% in 1989 to 57% in 2000—with almost 80% of users now working at their computer every day (Chart A, Table 1). The same trend can also be seen in other industrialized countries (see International comparisons).

As found in past studies, a higher proportion of employed women in 2000 used a computer at work than men, 60% compared with 54%. In 1989, the comparable figures were 38% and 32%.

Education and income key factors

Professional occupations note  1  often require a highly developed set of skills that, as the data confirm, often includes using a computer. Those with such jobs had the highest rate for computer use at work (86%) (Table 1). Most managerial jobs also involved computer use (78%). Although clerical jobs may not be considered "high skill", they had the second highest rate of computer use (84%). However, as shown later, persons in this line of work use a computer quite differently than do professionals or managers. Since higher level jobs usually require higher levels of education and can command higher earnings, it is not surprising to see these characteristics linked with computer use too. For example, while only 41% of workers with a high school education sat, at least occasionally, at a keyboard for their job, fully 85% of those with a university degree did so. And whereas only 36% of workers with an annual income less than $20,000 used a computer at work, 80% of those with $60,000 or more did so.

Younger (15 to 24) and older (55 and over) workers were both less likely to use a computer at work than were core-age (25 to 54) workers, about 40% compared with 62%. Also, full-time workers were more likely than part-time workers to use a computer at work (60% versus 39%), and employees more than the self-employed (57% versus 52%). However, the self-employed were more likely to use the Internet for their job than employees (69% versus 52%), confirming that, increasingly, the Internet is being used by the self-employed as a tool to conduct business (data not shown).

Among those with access, 8 in 10 use computer daily

Of the 8.3 million workers who used a computer at work, 78% (6.4 million) did so daily. Compared with computer use overall, there was much less discrepancy among workers who used a computer daily. In other words, if a computer was used at work, no matter the occupation or the workplace, the use was likely intense—with a few exceptions. Workers falling at least 10 percentage points below the average in terms of daily computer use comprised those 15 to 24 (67%), the self-employed (65%), those with an income of less than $20,000 (63%), those in trades and transport and equipment operating (62%), part-time workers (52%) and those in primary occupations (43%).

Most differences significant

Logistic regression note  2  was used to examine the relationship between computer use, intensity of use, and the above explanatory variables simultaneously. With only a few exceptions, all variables had a significant influence on the likelihood of using a computer at work (Table 1). The findings for age and residence were revealing. Even though younger workers were less likely to use a computer at work than core-age workers (41% compared with 62%), the difference was not significant when all other relevant variables, such as education and work status, were taken into account.

Many younger workers have not yet completed their schooling and perhaps work part time. Once this was taken into account, their computer use was not significantly different from that of core-age workers. Similarly, controlling for occupation (which takes into account the higher proportion of jobs in primary occupations in rural areas) and other variables, urban and rural dwellers were not significantly different in their computer use. As expected, education and income were strong predictors of computer use at work. For example, workers with a university degree were 3.0 times more likely to use a computer at work than those with a high school education or less.

On the other hand, only a few significant differences were evident in the daily use of computers. For example, the self-employed were significantly less likely than employees to use a computer daily, as were part-time workers compared with full-time. Also, higher income significantly increased the chances of working with a computer every day

Proficiency notwithstanding—almost everyone has learned to type

Of those who used a computer at work, the vast majority had composed text with a word processing package (83%), and most reported using their computer for four other purposes as well: data entry (72%), record keeping (69%), spreadsheets (63%), and the Internet (54%) (Table 2).note  3  Of a possible eight work-related computer tasks, workers did an average of 4.5. Less than half performed more technical tasks such as graphics generation (48%), data analysis (46%) and programming (16%).

Occupation is a key determining factor, not only for overall computer use at work (as shown above), but also for the type and number of computer applications used. For example, almost all professionals in natural and applied science used a computer at work (96%), and for the most purposes (6.3). This was also the only occupational group in which the majority did some computer programming at work (55%, compared with 16% overall). This group also had the highest average Internet use (87%, compared with 54% overall). Many in this field are considered knowledge workers, who generate and transmit ideas electronically and use the Internet to have ".access any time to unlimited amounts of the 'raw material' of knowledge creation" (ILO, 2000). At the other end of the spectrum are workers with jobs in trades and transport and equipment operation, primary occupations, or processing, manufacturing and utilities. Less than one-third of them used a computer at work, and those who did, used it for fewer purposes (3.3 to 4.1).

Computer users aged 15 to 24 used their machines for about the same number of purposes (4.5) as those 25 to 54 (4.6), but for more than workers 55 and over (4.0). Furthermore, compared with core-age workers, higher proportions of younger workers did word processing (89% versus 83%), programming (23% versus 15%), graphics generation (56% versus 48%), and spreadsheets (67% versus 64%). The high rate of computer programming among younger workers is consistent with the lower-than-average age profile of workers in computer programming and related occupations (Gower, 1998).

Computer tasks vary by sex

Although women were more likely than men to use a computer at work (60% versus 54%), they performed fewer tasks with their computer, 4.2 compared with 4.8 (Chart B). Furthermore, except for word processing, women were less likely than men to have done all computer-related types of work. The difference in computer work was particularly high for the Internet (48% for women versus 60% for men), graphics generation (42% versus 54%), data analysis (40% versus 53%), and programming (10% versus 21%). These differences can be explained largely by the varying occupations of women and men. For example, more men were employed in management (66%) and professional (53%) occupations—fields with higher-than-average use for all computer tasks. On the other hand, more women were employed in clerical (75%) and sales and service (52%) occupations—positions with below average rates for many of the different applications.

Multiple methods used to acquire skills

Although more than half of computer users had taken at least one computer-related course from an institution, most workers used less formal methods to learn their computer skills (Chart C). Not surprisingly, almost all computer users (97%) enhanced their skills through trial and error, and 78% rated it a very important method. Three-quarters of those who used a computer at work reported learning from co-workers and friends or family as well, and more than half also rated these as very important. Most also reported learning from manuals or tutorials (71%), but these were rated as very important by only 42%. The most common employer-related learning method was on-the-job training (65%), which, after trial and error, had the second highest rating (along with co-worker assistance) as a very important method (60%).

Classroom training prominent in public sector

In acquiring computing skills, public-sector employees note  4  were considerably more likely than those in the private sector to use all three types of employer-related training methods (classroom, self-paced and on-the-job). On-the-job training was the most common method for both public (74%) and private (68%) employees, and it was rated as very important by 6 in 10 that had such training. The largest difference occurred with classroom training—68% of public employees had it, compared with only 53% of private employees (Table 3).

Just over one-third of the self-employed experienced each of the three forms of employer-sponsored training, either in a previous paid job, or possibly with their own company if it had employees and offered such training. The low employer-related training rates are reflected in the overall number of computer learning methods used by the self-employed (4.0 of a possible 8). The number of computer training methods used by both public and private employees was higher, 5.1 and 4.7, respectively. Compared with employees, the self-employed were most likely to rely on friends or family (81%) and manuals or tutorials (76%) to learn to use their computer, with the former perceived as very important by the most people (60%).


Information and communication technology in the workplace has risen dramatically, with almost 6 in 10 workers in 2000 using a computer for their job, double the 3 in 10 just a decade earlier. Furthermore, almost 80% of these workers used a computer every day. Most used their machine for at least four purposes—with word processing, data entry, record keeping and spreadsheets being the most common. Except for word processing, men were more likely than women to do all types of computer-related work.

However, access to and use of ICTs was not evenly dispersed across the workplace. Workers were significantly more likely to use a computer at work if they were under 55, had high levels of education or income, were an employee, worked full-time, or were in a high skill or a clerical occupation.

Society is in the midst of an emerging digital era. Without doubt, there will be further technological change with implications for the workplace. Hence, for most workers (re)training, be it formal, informal or employer-sponsored, will be an ongoing part of their work life.


Data source and definitions

The main theme for the 2000 General Social Survey (GSS) was access to and use of information and communication technology, specifically computers and the Internet. From January to December, approximately 25,000 respondents 15 or older were asked details of their personal use of computers and the Internet. Topics covered included the use of computer technology in the workplace and the development of computer skills. Both the 1989 and 1994 GSS asked a limited number of questions on technology use. For more information on the 2000 cycle of the GSS, contact Kathryn Stevenson at (613) 951-4178.

Employed: persons who reported spending any time working at a job or business in the month previous to the interview.

Uses a computer at work: employed persons who used a computer at their main job during the preceding 12 months.

Income: total annual personal income, before deductions, from all sources. It comprises earnings from paid or self-employment, government transfer payments, and income from pension plans or other sources.

Public/private sector employment: a standard Labour Force Survey (LFS) variable, created after data collection based on National Accounts definitions. The public sector consists of employees in public administration at all levels of government, crown corporations, liquor control boards and other government institutions such as schools, hospitals and public libraries. The private sector is all remaining employees plus self-employed owners of businesses. All 4-digit industries from the LFS with 50% or more public sector employees were deemed to be public sector industries for the GSS, and all remaining industries, private sector. Using this proxy method, 17% of the employed in the GSS in 2000 were public sector, compared with 19% from the LFS.


International comparisons

As was the case in Canada, as little as 15 years ago (mid-1980s) less than one-third of the employed in other industrialized countries were using a computer at their job (OECD, 1998). Since then, growth in the use of computers at work has been steady and constant—with still no indication of a levelling in the trend.


  1. Includes financial analysts, accountants, scientists, engineers, architects, computer programmers, physicians, dentists, lawyers, teachers, librarians and journalists.
  2. This technique isolates each variable and reveals its relationship with the probability of using a computer at work while holding all other variables constant. Thus, it is possible to determine, for example, whether sex still influences computer use when occupation and other job and personal characteristics are held constant.
  3. The GSS asked about several types of computing activities with the following question: "In the past 12 months, have you done any of the following on a computer.." Except for a specific question about Internet activity at work, the survey did not ask respondents whether they did the other activities at home or at work. However, given that the study population for this section was employed people who used computers at work, it can be assumed that the reported computer activities were most likely done at work.
  4. Those employed in public administration, government institutions such as schools, hospitals and public libraries, crown corporations, and liquor control boards (See Data source and definitions).


  • Gower, D. "The booming market for programmers". Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 75-001-XPE) 10, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 9-15.
  • International Labour Organization. World Employment Report 2001: Life at Work in the Information Economy (Overview). Geneva: ILO, 2000.
  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Use of Information and Communication Technologies at Work, Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry, Unclassified, OECD, Paris, July 1998.
  • ---. Understanding the Digital Divide, Paris: OECD, 2001.


Katherine Marshall is with the Labour and Household Surveys Analysis Division. She can be reached at (613) 951-6890 or

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