How States are Implementing New Funds to Support Adult Learners and Workers

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, July 10, 2024

Recent federal and state investments[1] in digital skills are driving the implementation of new and expanded digital skill-building policies. By learning about how other states are approaching this implementation process, state leaders and advocates can inform their own efforts to build upskilling pathways for adult learners and workers.

It’s especially important that digital skills policies take advantage of data about digital skills needed for the workplace, because individuals often cite employment goals as the reason for enrolling in digital skills classes. Research conducted by NSC and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that 92 percent of jobs today require digital skills.

Related: New NSC Polling on digital skills shows that 90% of voters support policies that provide access to digital skills training for workers throughout their careers so they can adapt to new technologies in the workforce.

State workforce plans lack alignment with digital equity investments

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) requires states to submit a State Workforce Development Plan to federal agencies. It’s concerning that NSC’s review of a dozen states’ most recent WIOA plans found startlingly little alignment with Digital Equity Act plans.

For example, California’s WIOA plan makes no mention of the Digital Equity Act itself and only glancingly describes digital skills needs and opportunities. Ohio’s WIOA plan references the state’s trailblazing broadband investments and its use of BEAD funding to promote “digital transformation,” but makes no further comment about the workforce system and digital skills.

There are some exceptions:

  • Hawaii’s WIOA plan describes how the state has used data gathered from its 2021 Digital Literacy and Readiness Study to shape implementation of its Hawaii Career Acceleration Navigator (HI-CAN) online services for jobseekers.
  • Illinois’ WIOA plan details how the Illinois Broadband Lab convenes a statewide Digital Equity Network, collaborates with workforce partners to help residents build digital skills, and has offered Broadband READY grants to help local agencies maintain program capacity while awaiting federal DE funding.
  • North Carolina’s WIOA plan describes several activities related to digital skills, including a $1.3 million grant from the state Department of Information Technology to promote digital inclusion for students at NC community colleges by certifying and deploying trained digital navigators at 20 community colleges.
  • Washington’s WIOA plan sets a specific strategic goal for digital literacy and inclusion, which reads in part: “Enhance digital literacy and inclusion in workforce training programs, integrating digital skills across all levels of workforce education to ensure that all Washingtonians can participate fully in a digitally driven economy.”

Most states do mention digital skills in their Title II Adult Education section. But some states present minimal information about teachers’ use of technology, while others explicitly require program to offer meaningful digital skill-building opportunities for adult learners.

State digital equity plans show mixed evidence on skills

States were recently required to submit Digital Equity Plans to the federal government. These plans will form the roadmap for $2.75 billion in Digital Equity Act funding. NSC’s review of a dozen plans revealed mixed results in states’ proposed activities related to digital skills.

States devoted most of their plans describing their outreach process, asset inventories of DE programs, and how they will ensure high-speed internet access and digital devices. States provided far less detail on program design and evaluation and on how exactly they plan to accomplish their goals of improving residents’ digital skills.

However, there were some strong examples:

  • Washington is proposing to create a standardized, multilingual, digital literacy curriculum. Notably, the state also provides good detail on the existing landscape of skills training provided by community and technical colleges, in partnership with nonprofit community-based organizations. The plan also calls for the state’s broadband office to coordinate with educational institutions and workforce boards to expand training programs to upskill the workforce, and to increase access to on-the-job digital skills training.
  • Texas has done more than most states to meaningfully integrate digital skill-building into its existing infrastructure for adult education and workforce development. In addition, Texas’s plan specifically describes how its digital skills activities will help to accomplish the broader strategic goals of the Texas Workforce Commission and adult education agency. This is significant because embedding digital skills across existing systems is crucial to long-term sustainability.
  • Michigan is proposing to work via its Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity to establish an Employer-Led Collaborative focused on the broadband workforce. The state has also articulated a clear connection between its existing goal around postsecondary credential attainment and digital skills.
  • Colorado, Hawaii, and Louisiana also had notably robust digital skills sections to their digital equity plans.

A handful of states have identified rigorous measures for digital skills

Numerous states are creating “data dashboards” to track the impact of Digital Equity funds, but very few states have identified exactly what those dashboards will include. North Carolina, Tennessee, and Colorado have significantly more rigorous and detailed plans for measuring the impact of their digital skills policies.

Tennessee’s measures include: Increase the number of people in covered populations who receive digital skills training; increase training participants’ confidence in their knowledge and digital skills; increase the number of workforce development programs receiving digital skills grant funding to serve covered populations; increase the number of those in covered populations who receive a workforce credential, including certifications and/or degrees; and increase the number of those in covered populations who receive a job placement.

  • Colorado’s measures include: the number of individuals by covered population reporting they were able to accomplish an online task following an appointment with a digital navigator; percentage of covered populations who report feeling confident using the internet.
  • North Carolina’s measures include: increasing the percentage of residents who are confident using word processing programs, finding educational content, applying for jobs, and communicating with a healthcare provider by 10 percent; partner with workforce and education agencies at the state and local levels to identify and adopt high quality digital skills standards, including digital privacy and cybersecurity standards and digital health literacy.
  • Michigan is proposing to use federal Internet & Computer Use Survey data to calculate a “digital participation score” that compares the proportion of each covered population that is engaging in 23 different online activities (e.g., email, job searching, telework) with the proportion of the overall Michigan population that is engaging in those same activities.
  • Illinois is distinct in proposing to institute performance measures and reporting mechanisms that incorporate the principles of culturally relevant evaluation.

Other states do not provide the same level of detail:

  • Washington State merely proposes to measure “number of interactions with digital navigators” as the key performance indicator of whether “Washingtonians have opportunities to acquire the skills and understanding to participate in digital connectivity activities.”
  • Utah simply proposes to have “make digital navigator training available statewide,” and “train a minimum of 20 individuals from at least 10 separate organizations.”
  • Texas is proposing to measure modest increases in 1) the percentage of state residents who respond affirmatively to skills questions on the Texas Digital Opportunity Survey; 2) the number of organizations providing digital skills programming; 3) the percentage of Texas workers who have digital skills required for the workplace.

How are states’ efforts reaching jobseekers and workers most in need of digital skills

The Digital Equity Act requires states to describe how they will meet the digital skills needs of rural residents; veterans; older adults; individuals with disabilities; people with incomes below 150 percent of the poverty level; incarcerated people; English language learners and adults with low literacy skills; and people of color.

In general, states have done a better job of gathering baseline data on these populations’ digital skills needs than they have of spelling out specific policies to improve skills. That said, Hawaii’s and North Carolina have specific plans for reaching incarcerated individuals, Texas is notable for its interest in older adults, and Washington’s Integrated Digital English Acceleration (I-DEA) is a trailblazing model for serving adult English learners.,

Recommended next steps for state leaders and advocates

There is a significant need for more rigor and detail in many states’ plans for improving and measuring digital skills. Policymakers and advocates can draw on the examples of leading states to help strengthen their own states’ plans. NSC’s earlier recommendations on measuring digital skills may also be useful.

State broadband leaders should also lean into the expertise of their workforce and education partners. For example, state higher education leaders have invested significant time in developing strategies to , and their findings can help to set guardrails around quality for digital skills credentials.

Similarly, state adult education leaders have experience implementing digital skills policies under WIOA and can help inform the design of Requests for Proposals and for DE funds.

NSC will continue to track states’ digital skills policy implementation and will provide an updated version of this analysis in late 2024.



[1] Dedicated investment via the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act and the $42.4 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program (authorized as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act); Other federal funding (American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and CHIPS and Science Act); Existing state workforce and education investments, (Talent Ready Utah and Ohio’s TechCred program); New state investments such as Washington’s $14 million in digital navigation grants; Some states are specifically targeting funding to sustain local program providers while waiting for federal DE funds. Tennessee’s Digital Skills, Education, and Workforce Development (DSEW) and Illinois’ Digital Equity Capacity Kickstarter (DECK) are two such examples.