- About NSC
- Skills Mismatch
When people think about the digital divide, the image that comes to mind is of people who don’t have access to computers and devices – or people and communities that have limited access to broadband internet. Yet, just as concerning is the digital skills divide: the gulf between those who have the robust access and support needed to engage in skill-building opportunities, and those who do not. As technology evolves, the digital skill divide prevents equal participation in all parts of life – including people’s ability to get good jobs and advance in a career. The digital divide disproportionately impacts workers of color, low-income individuals, and rural residents, due to historic underinvestment and structural inequities. Closing the digital skill divide is one important part of building an inclusive economy.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic began, policymakers, businesses, and workforce advocates were raising the alarm about the digital skill divide. The pandemic put the divide into sharp relief: a decade of planned technological change swept through every industry and every workplace in less than a year. Businesses and workers are still catching up.
As we emerge from the pandemic and the pandemic recession, groundbreaking new research by National Skills Coalition and Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta that analyzed millions of “help wanted” ads found that fully 92 percent of jobs now require digital skills. The demand is robust across all industries and positions – from obvious industries like IT to the unexpected, like construction or warehousing – and from entry level positions to those that require years of experience. For example, construction workers often use blueprint apps to submit work-order changes on a building job; restaurant workers may need to process customer orders via tablet computer and log their own hours using HR applications; and warehouse workers may use a handheld device to track inventory and pick orders.
Fortunately, public investments in closing the digital skill divide would have major payoffs for workers, businesses, and the economy at large – including increased wages for workers and reduced turnover costs for businesses.
The research puts real numbers to the stories we’ve been hearing from workforce and education advocates and business leaders for years; and leads to a simple conclusion: we must make public investments to remedy the digital skill divide – and we must focus those investments with the goal of closing gaps in racial, gender, age, and geographic equity.
For the last year, our Digital Equity @ Work campaign has been urging federal and state policymakers to develop comprehensive policy strategies that guarantee foundational digital skills for all, lifelong access to upskilling for current workers, and rapid reskilling for those who lose their jobs – and we’ll continue the fight for Digital Equity @ Work in 2023 and beyond. Read about the work we’re doing at the state and federal level, and be ready to take action in the coming months.
Our coalition partners will remember that the bipartisan infrastructure law (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) passed in 2021 included landmark investments in digital inclusion through the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program and the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act (DE Act). This digital skills funding was something NSC partners advocated for during the 2021 virtual infrastructure virtual fly-in. This legislation was an important down payment toward closing the digital skill divide. The legislation provides formula funding and competitive grants to invest in a broad range of digital inclusion activities, including supporting individuals’ adoption and use of broadband internet, digital devices, and digital skills. Significantly, the BEAD program also invests in training and upskilling the workforce needed to install and support new broadband infrastructure.
Together, the BEAD Program and the DE Act work in tandem to fund state-level digital inclusion policies and the creation of a digital equity plan in each state. The BEAD program will send more than $42 billion to states over the next five years and state digital equity plans will guide how $1.44 billion in state Digital Equity Capacity Grants are spent over 5 years. State plans for both programs are due to the federal government near the end of 2023. NSC has partnered with Comcast to help state leaders bridge their existing workforce development programs with these new federal investments.
These investments provide a prime opportunity for state officials to meaningfully expand broadband access and address the digital skill divide. In the coming year, state advocates, including NSC’s SkillSPAN coalitions and employers from NSC’s Business Leaders United network, will focus on participating in each state’s digital equity planning process, sharing data and promising practices on digital skill building with state decisionmakers, advocating for inclusive planning processes, and educating policymakers on digital equity investments and policies that expand digital skill-building, all in alignment with NSC’s State-Level Digital Equity Recommendations.
SkillSPAN coalitions in North Carolina, Texas, and Washington have already begun this work.
This year, skills advocates have multiple avenues to influence state policy on digital skills, including implementation of the federal Digital Equity Act and BEAD funds, advancement of state agencies’ administrative policies on incumbent-worker training and upskilling, and development of new state legislative proposals.
State activists can utilize NSC’s recommendations for implementation to ensure that their states’ digital equity efforts are closely connected to broader education and workforce goals; that they are reaching key populations like rural communities and people of color; and that they help individuals and businesses build resiliency in the face of rapid technological change. In addition, state advocates can work with NSC staff to host a state-specific virtual briefing to highlight findings from NSC’s Closing the Digital Skill Divide report and implications for state policy.
Looking ahead, a gridlocked Congress (Democrats hold the majority of the seats in the Senate, Republicans hold a majority of seats in the House) is likely to create significant headaches for new Congressional leadership. To pass any meaningful legislation over the next two years, members of Congress need to keep their own party’s coalition together while also collaborating across the aisle. This is true for reauthorization of key legislation like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), as well as any new skills training legislation.
NSC and a set of national partners convened a series of WIOA listening sessions with stakeholders from across the country to inform a set of recommendations WIOA reauthorization and other recovery-related investments. A key recommendation from those sessions was to embed digital equity into WIOA reauthorization. When the House passed a WIOA bill last spring, support for digital access and learning for all working people at home and on the job in ways that support equitable upskilling was embedded in that bill.
This year, NSC’s North Star is to ensure that robust support for digital access is embedded in the full range of any introduced skills policy and workforce development proposals. NSC is also prioritizing the introduction of new, stand-alone legislation to upskill and reskill workers with in-demand digital skills and is working with our champions in Congress to make this happen.
NSC’s Business Leaders United (BLU) network supports businesspeople in sharing their company’s stories about digital skill-building barriers and how improved policies could help their bottom line. Throughout the year, we’ll be creating opportunities for BLU members to speak directly to Congressmembers about why additional investment in industry-specific digital skills is vital to their economic success.
In May, attendees of NSC’s annual Skills Summit will have the chance to speak directly with federal policymakers about their digital skills priorities. This will be a valuable opportunity to help elected officials understand how investing in policies like industry sector partnerships and financial aid for high-quality short-term programs can improve workers’ access to digital skill-building opportunities and help to close equity gaps.
NSC members will also have opportunities to weigh in with federal agency staff, as the US Departments of Labor, Education and Commerce continue to roll out discretionary grant programs and requests for public comment. While some agency meetings occur in person during the Summit or other Washington-based events, NSC also hosts occasional virtual meetings and provides comment templates to equip skills advocates to share their perspective with federal officials.
This year will be a pivotal one for NSC members and BLU leaders. Digital upskilling is one of the fastest-changing areas of skills policy ever, and that means that the on-the-ground wisdom and experience of our network is especially vital in helping policymakers figure out the most effective responses to this changing environment.
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