Expanding Access to Broadband Careers and Building Digital Skills: Next Steps in State Policy Advocacy

The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress in 2021 is sending more than $42 billion to states to build out high-speed internet networks via the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. This historic investment will require many workers to complete these projects – including laying the fiber–optic cables and maintaining the networks.

The competition for these workers across states will be unlike anything that we’ve ever seen – because the federal government is simultaneously investing billions of dollars in every state, and because many of these occupations will also be in high demand for clean energy, transportation, and construction projects.

At the same time, a technological transformation – accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic – has made digital skills a necessity for most jobs. Recent research by National Skills Coalition found 92% of jobs across a myriad of industries require digital skills. One huge opportunity to address the need for digital skills lies within the Digital Equity Act, also passed in 2021.

Recently, all states have concluded their public comment periods for both the State Digital Equity Plans and BEAD 5-year Action Plans. Many workforce and education advocates took advantage of the opportunity to comment on these plans to raise the importance of investing in digital skill-building and the broadband workforce.

Now that public comment periods have closed, skills advocates can take further action to influence state leaders to expand access to broadband careers and digital skill-building. Specific opportunities for each of those two areas are outlined below.

To expand access to broadband careers under BEAD:

Advocates should first review your state’s BEAD initial proposal to learn how your state is proposing to ensure a sufficiently skilled and trained broadband workforce. This information is contained in Volume II of each state’s BEAD proposal, in the section titled Workforce Readiness.

  • If your state BEAD plan specifies particular next steps, such as formation of a Workforce Taskforce or sector partnership, skills advocates should reach out to that group to provide information and resources about workforce development program models and policies (see below).
  • If your state BEAD plan provides only general comments on workforce readiness, or a simple list of state workforce programs without explanation of how they will be coordinated to support broadband workforce development, advocates should request a meeting with state broadband leaders to help connect the dots between the state’s BEAD goals and workforce policies.

In either case, skills advocates should urge states to take a hands-on approach to working with their BEAD subgrantees to find and train a skilled workforce. States have wide latitude in deciding how engaged they want to be in working with their BEAD subgrantees (typically Internet Service Providers) on workforce development issues.

Skills advocates can give state leaders concrete ideas (such as those listed below) for how to support their subgrantees. Advocates should emphasize that even if their state is not spending BEAD resources on workforce development, these ideas can be implemented with non-BEAD funds or (in many cases) as revenue-neutral policies.

  • Implement new and expanded broadband apprenticeship programs and other “earn and learn” opportunities that allow workers to upskill without debt;
  • Establish industry partnerships for broadband workforce development, and support their capacity to engage in equity-advancing practices;
  • Incentivize and support training, hiring, and career advancement of local residents in broadband jobs.
  • Ensure that workforce programs provide economic supports to make career transitions possible for workers entering broadband-related roles.
  • Improve financial aid to expand access to shorter-term skills training programs at community colleges, including programs that help people train for broadband careers.
  • Collect data and report on job outcomes of broadband infrastructure spending — disaggregating results by race, gender, and geography.

The clock is ticking for states to get their ducks in a row on workforce development. Once the federal government approves a state’s BEAD Initial Proposal, funds will be released, and the state has just one year to run a competitive application process and make grants to eligible entities. To date, Louisiana and Nevada have had their proposals approved. Other states are expected to receive approvals soon.

Get a sneak preview of your state’s plans by reviewing the Scoring Phase and Scoring Rubric sections of the BEAD Initial Proposal. These sections reveal whether your state will be awarding points for workforce development to BEAD subgrantee applicants.

Check carefully to see how your state has laid out its process. States may (but are not required to) award points to applicants who have made enforceable commitments to equitable workforce development and job quality objectives.

Verify whether your state expects to have additional BEAD funds available for “non-deployment” uses after last-mile deployment funds are spent. At least 13 states expect to have such non-deployment funds available. Per the federal government, these funds can be used for a wide range of potential activities, including:

  • Digital literacy/upskilling (from beginner to advanced)
  • Computer science, coding, and cybersecurity education programs
  • Implementation of State Digital Equity Plans (supplementing but not duplicating or supplanting DE Act funds)
  • Broadband sign-up assistance and programs that provide technology support
  • Multilingual outreach to support adoption and digital literacy
  • Prisoner education to promote pre-release digital literacy, job skills, online job-acquisition skills, etc.
  • Digital navigators

In states that do anticipate having non-deployment funds to spend, skills advocates should review the BEAD proposal to see how your state intends to spend the money and should follow up with state leaders to urge their states to be bold in dedicating a portion of their funds to workforce development and digital skill-building.

Florida and Arkansas are two examples of states that have already made strong commitments. Louisiana is another example; as detailed in Section 2.6.1 of its BEAD Proposal, the state plans to give $30 million directly to the Louisiana Community and Technical College System to support broadband workforce development.

Even in states that do not expect to have any money left over for non-deployment uses, there are still revenue-neutral ways for state leaders to take action. New York’s BEAD Initial Proposal vol. II provides a useful reference here.

In its proposal, New York highlights how it has already facilitated partnerships among employers, training providers, and community organizations, and intends to continue this “matchmaking” role between employers (that is, BEAD subgrantees) and workforce programs.

An example of the type of partnership NY wants to support is the Next Gen Digital Workforce Program led by Youth Action Programs and Homes Inc. in New York City. This is an industry-driven training that prepares low-income youth for high-demand careers in network management and fiber installation. The program includes 165 hours of training, hands-on experience, and industry-recognized credentials in partnership with industry. The free program is open to low-income individuals ages 18-30 and provides attendance and completion stipends.

To capitalize on the Digital Equity Act to expand access to digital skill-building:

  • Urge your state broadband leaders to prioritize digital skills as one of the proposed activities in their application for formula funds. The federal government is distributing this money to states via the just-released Notice of Funding Opportunity for the Digital Equity Capacity Grants. States must submit their applications for funds by May 28, 2024. States are required to explain which elements of their State Digital Equity Plans they will prioritize spending this money on. Advocates should reach out to state broadband leaders now to encourage the prioritization of digital skills and workforce development.
  • Make sure your state is establishing clear, useful measurable objectives for its digital skills programs. States must spell these out as part of their grant applications (due next month, as detailed above!). Collecting this data will be vital to showing the impact of digital equity funds, enabling program providers to course-correct during implementation, and convincing policymakers to make additional investments in the future. Advocates can copy and paste language from NSC’s comment template on skills measurment to recommend specific measures to state officials.
  • Encourage state workforce, higher education, and adult education officials to review and update existing policies to better align them with Digital Equity goals. For example, to date only a small handful of states have coordinated their Digital Equity Plans with their Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) or similar plans. (Colorado is one of them.) State officials should take this opportunity to review existing policies pertaining to new and incumbent worker training, adult education, and credit-bearing and noncredit higher education to ensure that they reflect emerging and best practices in digital equity. For example:
  • Incumbent worker training funds should explicitly include digital skills as an allowable use.
  • Adult education policies should encourage the use of the federal WIOA Measurable Skill Gain indicator or similar state measures to capture digital skills learning gains among adult learners.
  • State financial assistance policies for non-degree credentials and shorter-term training programs should be inclusive of high-quality digital skills credentials.
  • Prepare now to make sure that education and workforce organizations are positioned to apply for Digital Equity funds. Nonprofit organizations, adult education providers, community colleges, and other eligible entities will have two opportunities to compete for funding.
  • First, organizations can apply when their state broadband office releases a Request for Proposals or similar document to re-grant federal formula funding down to the local level. It is important to start now in planning what your digital skills projects might look like, as there will likely be a short turnaround time when funding deadlines are announced. Consulting the State Digital Equity Plan is a good way to learn how the state is envisioning spending its formula funds.
  • Second, organizations can apply directly to the federal National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) when the Digital Equity Competitive Grant opportunity opens later in 2024. Stay tuned to this website for news of that federal announcement. One thing that every applicant organization (even sub-grant applicants) must do is obtain a Unique Entity ID from the federal government. This process is relatively straightforward, but should be tackled immediately, without waiting for the funding opportunity to open up.