Digital Equity Campaign Update: What’s happening in the states, federal agencies, and on Capitol Hill

National Skills Coalition’s Digital Equity @ Work campaign is our effort to urge federal and state policymakers to develop comprehensive policy strategies that guarantee foundational digital skills for all, lifelong access to digital upskilling, and rapid reskilling for those who lose their jobs.

Policies that ensure equitable access to digital skills are key to inclusive economy

Policymakers, businesses, and workforce advocates have long recognized that more and more workers in more and more industries are being called upon to work hand-in-glove with rapidly evolving technology. But the pandemic accelerated ten years of planned technological change in just a few months. It was a real sea change that workers and businesses are still scrambling to respond to – and that’s not just anecdotal. In February, NSC together with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta released groundbreaking research that found that 92 % of jobs now require digital skills. Yet only two-thirds of workers have the foundational skills they need to enter and thrive in today’s jobs. The report also finds that this digital skill divide disproportionately impacts workers of color, low-income individuals, and people who live in rural areas, due to historic underinvestment and structural inequities. If we want to build a truly inclusive economy (one where workers and businesses who are most impacted by economic shifts, as well as workers who face structural barriers of discrimination or lack of opportunity, are empowered to equitably participate in — and benefit from — a growing economy) then ensuring equitable access to digital skill building is a critical building block.

How is Congress tackling digital skills?

As a reminder, our coalition successfully fought for passage of the landmark digital skills legislation in 2021 as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The law included the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program and the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act (DE Act). But this important legislation is just a starting point. Much more investment is needed. The good news is, Congress is listening! NSC is now working with Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) on the forthcoming 21st Century Workforce Act. This legislation would amend the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to provide new funding for digital skill-building. This bill enables workers on the job and those who have been displaced to access essential digital skills needed in high-demand sectors like manufacturing, tech, and more. Specifically, the bill would:

  • Create digital skills training programs by establishing formula funding grants to states based on a combination of total state population, number of working-age residents, and number of residents with low digital literacy skills (determined by proxy measures of educational attainment, earnings, and limited English proficiency).
  • Increase digital equity by establishing competitive grants for localities and organizations, with priority given to those that will serve individuals with barriers to employment and historically underrepresented populations.
  • Require performance accountability through publicly available reports from states, localities, and organizations which receive a grant under this bill.

This legislation boldly advances the work begun under the recent Digital Equity Act by making specific, targeted investments in digital workplace skills and supporting the development of digitally resilient education and workforce systems.

This still-to-be-introduced legislation was previewed at a special Capitol Hill briefing as part of our May 2023 Skills Summit, moderated by NSC Policy Analyst Caroline Treschitta. NSC network members are now working closely with Caroline (and Senator Kaine’s office) to identify a Republican Senator as co-lead for the legislation.

What’s happening at federal agencies?

The US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has been rolling out the implementation of the federal Digital Equity Act and the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program. Among the notable recent developments:

  • States’ allocations under the $42 billion BEAD program have been announced. Every state will get at least $100 million, but specific amounts vary dramatically given the funding formula that Congress devised. For example, Kansas will receive $451 million, while Texas will receive $3.3 billion dollars.
  • States’ BEAD 5-year Action Planning processes are underway. As these plans are submitted to the federal government, states are moving quickly into drafting their Initial Proposals for how BEAD funds will be spent. Workforce development is an allowable use for BEAD funding, but skills advocates will have to speak up to ensure that their states actually dedicate funds for this purpose. Look for your state on NTIA’s website to see what deadlines are coming up. Get an overview of BEAD funding in these NSC slides.
  • State Digital Equity Planning processes are underway. Note: Some states have renamed this process the Digital Opportunity Plan, but it’s the same thing. The nonprofit World Education is maintaining a list of each state’s Digital Equity Planning timelines, along with contact information for state officials. NSC urges our members to attend listening sessions and/or submit public comments on their State Plans. Contact your State Network Manager or NSC Senior Fellow Amanda Bergson-Shilcock if you need assistance in drafting comments.

How is NSC member input being heard at the federal level?

While legislative advocacy with Congress often gets the spotlight, administrative advocacy with public agencies can be equally influential in advancing shared policy goals.

For example, in response to numerous requests from our network for more and better baseline data on digital skills, NSC recently submitted comments urging NTIA and the Census Bureau to collect more data about digital skills as part of the upcoming Computer and Internet Use survey.

This is a supplemental survey to the Bureau’s ongoing Current Population Survey, a comprehensive and rigorous national data tool that provides useful public data for advocates to analyze and use. NSC also shared a comment template with network members that those organizations could use to submit their own comments.

Turning to another agency, the US Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) continues to support the advancement of digital skills through several national projects. One such project is Digital Resilience in the American Workforce (DRAW), an initiative intended to better prepare adult education practitioners who support learners that struggle to fully engage in tasks that demand the use of digital technologies. Amanda Bergson-Shilcock serves as a Technical Work Group member for this project.

OCTAE is also funding the Transforming Immigrant Digital Equity initiative, which is specifically focused on immigrants’ and English learners’ digital skills.

What’s happening in the states

A handful of states continue to be national leaders on various aspects of digital skills. Colorado, Hawaii, and North Carolina were profiled in an earlier NSC blog post and continue to be at the forefront of implementation.

Among other states where interesting developments are occurring:

  • In Virginia, state adult education and vocational rehabilitation leaders have been eager to take advantage of NSC’s recent digital skills research to better serve adult learners and jobseekers. Earlier this year, NSC staff provided a webinar on our research findings and recommendations, co-hosted by the state Departments of Education & Aging and Rehabilitative Services, for Virginia career pathways stakeholders. Meanwhile, the Virginia Office of Broadband, housed in the Department of Housing and Community Development, is overseeing the state’s BEAD and digital equity funding. That office is currently fielding a Digital Opportunity Survey of state residents.
  • Ohio has established a Broadband and 5G Sector Partnership to ensure that there will be a sufficient number of skilled workers for the broadband infrastructure jobs being created by the BEAD funding. The sector partnership is coordinated by The Ohio State University and includes a wide array of partners. The initiative was initially funded by a $9 million US DOL QUEST grant and $3 million in US Department of Commerce Good Jobs Challenge funding.

These are just a handful of examples. Other states are also leading vital work. Stay tuned for more state examples coming soon from NSC! And if your state is doing something exciting, please let us know.