Digital Equity @ Work 2023 Wrapped: A Year of Impact

By Nicky Lauricella Coolberth, December 18, 2023

NSC began the year by releasing groundbreaking new research together with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta that analyzed millions of “help wanted” ads. We found that 92 percent of jobs now require digital skills. The research found that demand for digital skills was robust across all industries – from the obvious such as the tech sector to unexpected industries like construction, or warehousing. Digital skills are in demand from entry-level positions to those that require years of experience. Previous research found that 1/3 of workers don’t have the foundational digital skills necessary to enter and thrive in today’s jobs. Together, the two findings shine a light on a digital skill divide that negatively affects workers, businesses and our economy. The digital skill divide disproportionally impacts workers of color, low-income people, and rural residents due to historic underinvestment and structural inequities.

The research backed up what we’d been hearing anecdotally: that the pandemic had accelerated a decade of technological change, and that businesses were (and are) still scrambling to respond.

The findings drove home the urgency of our campaign’s mission and fueled our digital equity work in 2023: 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 we must ensure equitable access to digital skill building.

Corporate Partners say digital skill building is key to digital inclusion efforts

NSC released the findings at a pivotal moment: as states were beginning to implement the historic $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act, part of the bi-partisan infrastructure law. The once-in-a-generation federal investments presented a real opportunity to begin to close the digital skill divide – and for businesses to weigh in on how we ought to do it. That’s why, in October, more than 70 corporate partners – from Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and chambers of commerce – from across the country partnered with NSC and BLU to release a set of guiding principles aimed at closing the digital divide. This initiative underscored the pivotal role of digital skill development in achieving digital inclusion.

The principles note the importance of access to broadband and high-quality devices. But, critically, the sign-on also shared three principles for digital adoption, including:

  • A digital skill foundation for all so that every person has the opportunity to develop basic digital problem-solving skills.  
  • Upskilling for every worker in every workplace to empower workers with industry- and occupation-specific digital skills to adapt and advance in their careers. 
  • Rapid reskilling for rapid re-employment when workers lose their jobs due to economic disruption and need to train for a new industry. 

National Skills Coalition and Business Leaders United also hosted a Fireside Chat with Comcast’s Dalila Wilson-Scott who joined NSC CEO Andy Van Kleunen and a panel of thought leaders for a dynamic conversation about how private sector leaders – from small local firms to Fortune 500s – are collaborating with community partners to close the digital skill divide and drive a more equitable, inclusive economy.

Digital Equity: A foundation of our 2023 Coalition Advocacy

Inspired by both the research and the corporate principles – our coalition spent 2023 urging federal and state policymakers to take action on digital equity. Support for digital skill building was woven throughout NSC’s legislative agenda including a call to build on the success of the Digital Equity Act by providing formula and competitive grant funding through Digital Skills at Work Grants to ensure all workers have access to critical digital skills in their current or future workplaces. During our largest-ever Skills Summit in May, attendees brought this ask for funding, along with their digital skills stories to legislators as part of their workforce advocacy.

At the Summit, NSC hosted a Digital Skills at Work legislative briefing on Capitol Hill to highlight for Congressional staff, workforce advocates, and members of the press the importance of creating opportunities for workers to advance their digital skills on the job, and when they lose their job. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) previewed new legislation called the 21st Century Workforce Act that would amend the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to provide key digital skills training opportunities for workers and students. Because the bill needs a republican co-sponsor – we mobilized our SkillSPAN networks, including in Indiana to urge Senators Mike Braun (R-IN) and Todd Young (R-IN) to co-sponsor the bill.

Throughout the year, NSC also endorsed a suite of federal legislation in line with our digital skills priorities, such as the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Literacy Act led by Representative and Congressional Black Caucus member Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) and Investing in Digital Skills Act.

In October, Business Leaders traveled to Washington DC during the appropriations process. Their message to policymakers: Congress must support worker and employer needs by investing in our workforce system – including funding for skills training (including digital skills) supportive services, and sector partnerships.

At our annual Skills in the States Forum – a convening of state and local leaders working to bring skills training opportunities to more people through policy change – state leaders participated in a session called Digital Skills in High Demand: How State Leaders and Advocates Can Respond. Participants heard insights from leaders implementing measures to ensure equitable access to digital skill-building initiatives, especially for individuals encountering additional hurdles, discover how state advocates are engaging small businesses, contributing public feedback, and rallying support from policymakers to endorse inclusive digital skills policies.

Digital Equity is on the Move in the States

SkillSPAN, NSC’s State Policy and Advocacy Network, had an impactful year on the Digital Equity fFront. In partnership with National Skills Coalition (NSC), SkillSPAN fights for state skills policies that help people get jobs that reflect their career aspirations, help business find skilled workers, and help states build strong, inclusive economies. The network is the first and only national network of multi-stakeholder coalitions that develop and promote skills policies. The 20 coalitions in SkillSPAN are led by independent organizations who convene multi-stakeholder groups of skills advocates to advance a shared skills policy agenda with the support of NSC.

In 2023, seven state affiliates advocated for digital skills as part of state digital equity plans and five states adopted NSC’s digital skills proposals as part of their digital equity plans. Here are just a few examples of these policy wins:

  • In Colorado, SkillSPAN convened a group of adult education providers to help pass SB 7, an adult education bill with a focus on digital equity. The bill adds a digital literacy component to the basic education offered in adult education programs. This addition supports Colorado in its efforts to build a digital skill foundation for all its residents and is in line with NSC’s Digital Equity @ Work recommendations.
  • Thanks to SkillSPAN advocacy and NSC’s technical assistance, Washington passed the Digital Equity Act, requiring agencies to come together to develop a digital equity plan to increase broadband access and digital equity. The legislation includes funding for regional planning and navigators, including those with lived experience.
  • In California, the Skills for California coalition advocated for the inclusion of digital literacy training for low-income communities facing barriers to broadband adoption within a $6B broadband initiative funding.
  • In Michigan, proposed language for Phase 2 of the state’s BEAD funding includes language from NSC’s digital skills recommendations. That victory came about after NSC and Michigan SkillSPAN organized more than 30 Michigan businesses and organizations to contact their legislators to affirm the critical role of digital skills in getting unconnected Michiganders online, and to urge the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office to do its utmost to make the digital skills-related plans laid out in Volume II of its BEAD Initial Proposal come to fruition.

This work will continue into 2024. NSC recently released two comment templates to help advocates continue to push for digital equity policies in their states. The first is a short summary of broadband workforce development and digital skills recommendations that advocates can use as a comment template. It is designed to help education and workforce advocates who want to ensure that their state’s implementation of federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funds responds to the needs of workers and small businesses on the ground. Specifically, this template can be used to: 

  • Submit formal comments on a State BEAD Action Plan or BEAD Initial Proposal (especially Volume II).  
  • Submit informal comments to a state broadband office or related state agency . 
  • Comment on other state policy documents related to BEAD, such as draft Requests for Proposals for BEAD funds. 

The second is a short summary of digital skills-related recommendations that education and workforce advocates can use as a template to:

  • Submit formal comments on their State Digital Equity Plan
  • Submit informal comments to their state broadband office or other state agency stakeholders
  • Comment on draft state Requests for Proposals or Solicitations for Grant Applications for digital equity funds.

The recommendations cover why states should invest in digital skills as part of their federal Digital Equity Act spending, what program models and strategies they should focus on, and how they can measure the success of digital upskilling programs.

America needs a national policy strategy for digital equity at work – a strategy that guarantees foundational digital skills for all, lifelong upskilling for current workers, and rapid re-skilling for those who’ve lost their job during the pandemic. Our Digital Equity @ Work campaign urges 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 2024 and beyond. Will you join us?