New York — Microsoft and its LinkedIn unit will provide free job training to help unemployed workers prepare for in-demand jobs as the global pandemic increases global unemployment.

Microsoft aims to provide additional skills to 25-million people globally by the end of the year through the initiative for such jobs as software developer, customer-service specialist and graphic designer. It uses LinkedIn data to find the jobs that employers most want to fill, and offers free access to content that helps workers develop the required skills. The company will also cut the cost of its certification exams and offer free job-seeking tools.

Microsoft said its calculations show global unemployment may reach a quarter of a billion people in 2020. The US unemployment rate was 13.3% in May, the highest level since 1940, as the coronavirus shut down stores, restaurants and bars, with higher rates of joblessness among black and Latino workers. While parts of the economy are starting to reopen in the US, companies are also shutting down, filing for bankruptcy or announcing permanent job cuts to adjust to a long-term slowdown.

In January, Microsoft began working on a plan for a smaller initiative to highlight tools to address a long-term move to jobs that are becoming increasingly digital. When Covid-19 hit, the company decided to expand the initiative to reach more workers faster, Microsoft president Brad Smith said in an interview.

“Covid-19 sent so many people home, if they had the good fortune to keep their job and work from home,” Smith said. “It became clear that to get back into the workplace, many people would not be able to return to the job they left —  they might need to get a new job  — or even their old job required a lot more digital skills than before.”

Microsoft used data from LinkedIn to come up with 10 roles with the greatest number of job openings, steady growth for the past four years, “liveable” wages and skills that can be learnt online, the company said on Tuesday in a blog post. These include: software developer, sales representative, data analyst, customer service specialist and graphic designer.

One piece of the original programme that has been broadened in the wake of the pandemic is funding for non-profit groups to reach out to people who otherwise would not know about the programme or who could not do everything online. Microsoft will spend $20m in cash grants for global non-profit with a goal of helping 5-million unemployed workers in 2020.

The effort will focus in particular on people with disabilities, workers from low-income communities, women and minorities. A quarter of the money will be earmarked for grants to 50 US community-based non-profit organisations led by and serving communities of colour, Microsoft said.

“Someone who is unemployed needs to know what to learn. We give them the access to that learning material for free to areas where we know there are recruiters and hiring managers on the other side waiting to hire them,” said LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky.

LinkedIn also plans to provide its own labour market data and information on in-demand skills for free to governments. The data will include popular job openings in a region, the top skills required for those jobs and data on which employers are hiring the most in a particular geography. To access the data, click here.