Nearly 1 in 3 workers lack foundational digital skills, new report finds

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, May 20, 2020

Note: NSC hosted a webinar exploring findings from this report on June 3, 2020. Watch now

A new report from National Skills Coalition provides hard data to illustrate the uneven landscape of US workers’ digital literacy skills, and outlines opportunities to invest in digital skill-building as part of an inclusive economic recovery.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought home the importance of digital skills for workers in virtually every industry and occupation. Throughout the United States, people are scrambling to adapt to a new reality in which paramedics are triaging patients via telehealth technology; retail workers are using customized apps to process inventory; and educators are moving their classes online. But even before the pandemic, many workers lacked the foundational digital skills necessary to quickly adapt and upskill as their jobs evolve.

Overall, nearly one in three workers lack foundational digital skills, according to the report, The New Landscape of Digital Literacy: How workers’ uneven digital skills affect economic mobility and business competitiveness, and what policymakers can do about it. In particular, 13 percent have no digital skills and 18 percent have very limited skills. Another 35 percent have achieved a baseline level of proficiency, and the final 33 percent have advanced skills. The data refers to workers ages 16-64 who were employed at the time of the survey. (For more information about the data source, see “Where does this data come from?” below.)


How are digital skills being defined?

For this report, National Skills Coalition defined four levels of foundational digital skills:

  • No digital skills: People with no digital skills failed to meet one or more of the three baseline criteria to even take the full digital skills assessment: 1) prior computer use, 2) willingness to take the computer-based assessment, or 3) ability to complete four out of six very basic computer tasks, such as using a mouse or highlighting text on screen.
  • Limited digital skills: People with limited digital skills can complete only very simple digital tasks that have a generic interface and just a few steps. As an example, people at this level would have a difficult time sorting email responses to an event invitation into pre-existing folders to keep track of who can and cannot attend an event.
  • Proficient digital skills: People at this level would typically struggle with tasks that require the use of both generic and specific technology applications. For example, a person might not be able to complete a task involving with the use of a new type of online form, and the need to navigate across multiple pages and applications to answer the test question. This task may have multiple steps, and may require the use of tools (such as the “sort” function) to solve the problem. The person may have to identify the goal themselves, and engage in higher-level reasoning to solve the problem.
  • Advanced digital skills: At this level, a person might have to make use of an online form that they are encountering for the first time. In doing so, they might have to define for themselves the goal of the problem they are solving, and use inferential reasoning in solving the problem. They might need to navigate across different online pages and applications, carry out multiple steps of a task, and evaluate the relevance of a set of items to discard distractors.


How do digital skill gaps differ by industry?

Digital skill gaps occur across all industries. However, they are especially high in the construction, transportation, and storage sectors, where fully half (50 percent) of all workers have limited or no digital skills. More than one-third of workers in several other major industries also have digital skill gaps, including retail (37 percent), hospitality (36 percent), manufacturing (35 percent) and health and social work (33 percent).

The number of workers with significant skill gaps is lower, but still concerning, in the finance, insurance, and real estate sector (where 19 percent have limited or no digital skills), and education sector (15 percent).

A full list of digital skill gaps by industry sector and broad occupational category is included in the report being released today. In addition, National Skills Coalition previously released five industry-specific fact sheets on digital literacy.


What do we know about digital skills on the job?

Many workers who have serious digital skill gaps are nevertheless employed in jobs that require them to use computers. NSC’s analysis found that fully 38 percent of workers with no digital skills have jobs that require either moderate or complex computer skills. An even higher percentage of workers with limited skills (43 percent) are employed in jobs that require moderate or complex computer usage.

Previous research on foundational skills conducted by NSC found that workers’ skill gaps are an invisible drag on productivity, and that people often spend considerable extra time and effort covering for their skill gaps or “muddling through” work tasks. Tactics include relying on help from co-workers or family members and delaying or avoiding tasks that require digital skills, among others.

A lack of skills is not just a problem for workers themselves. NSC’s new report found that one-fifth (20 percent) of workers with no digital skills are supervising other workers. Among workers with limited skills, an even higher percentage (33 percent) are supervisors. Supervisors’ own digital skill gaps can act as a productivity bottleneck that delays adoption or usage of new digital tools by entire teams.


How does fragmented knowledge affect digital upskilling approaches?

It may seem surprising that in this day and age some workers have few or no digital skills. It is important to note that many of these workers may have fragmented knowledge: That is, they may be comfortable using a mobile phone to text a photo, but not be familiar with how to operate a mouse or upload a job application.

This is particularly true for individuals who do not own a desktop or laptop computer at home (23 percent of US households fall into this category) and/or who have smartphone-only internet access—that is, they don’t have home broadband internet access. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey showed that people of color are more likely to have smartphone-only internet access, with 23 percent of Black respondents and 25 percent of Latino respondents falling into this category, compared to just 12 percent of whites.

Policymakers and advocates seeking to help these workers upskill should be careful not to underestimate their ingenuity and expertise. Leaders should ensure that workers have a voice in identifying what skill-building opportunities they need, what support is necessary to ensure their success, and how their employers can most effectively be engaged in upskilling conversations.

Understanding the phenomenon of fragmented knowledge can help leaders avoid making assumptions about who lacks digital skills and why, and which interventions can help people make bridges between the skills they have and the skills they need.


How do demographics affect digital skill gaps?

Due in large measure to structural forces in American society, digital skill gaps are closely correlated with several demographic variables. In particular, individuals with limited or no digital skills are likely to have a high school education or less; to have low earnings; and to have limited literacy skills.

Notably, younger workers are far from immune to digital skills gaps. Indeed, individuals under the age of 35 make up fully one-quarter (25 percent) of workers with no digital skills, and 29 percent of those with limited skills.

While white workers are a plurality of those with digital skill gaps, workers of color are disproportionately likely to face such gaps. Those facing barriers include both US-born workers and immigrants. NSC explores these issues at length in a recent fact sheet, Applying a Racial Equity Lens to Digital Literacy.


How can policymakers and advocates take action?

Policymakers, business leaders, educators, and workforce advocates can use the information provided in this report to inform their efforts to upskill US workers and equip employers with the skilled workforce they need.

Key steps that policymakers should take include:

  • Embedding digital literacy and problem-solving skills as allowable or required activities under existing workforce development, adult education, and higher education policies
  • Investing in new Digital Literacy Upskilling grants to expand access to high quality digital skills instruction that meets industry and worker needs. These grants should support the development and implementation of programs that embed digital literacy skills as part of broader occupational skills training, integrated education and training, and other accelerated learning strategies.
    • One model for this is the Digital Equity Act, now under consideration in Congress, which would create two new federal grant programs to support digital literacy.
    • At the state level, policymakers can introduce state-level legislation or an administrative policy mirroring the federal-facing Digital Equity Act, but should also provide resources and technical assistance for adult education programs that serve workers and learners. These programs are an important existing avenue for digital skill-building.
    • Incentivizing private investment in digital skills training, instruction, and upskilling opportunities for incumbent workers by expanding the scope of existing tax policies like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) to allow employers to provide essential upskilling opportunities, both in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and over the longer term.

More detailed recommendations on how state and federal policy can support digital upskilling will be available in a future publication from National Skills Coalition, forthcoming in July 2020.


Where does the data come from?

Data used in this report comes from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Survey of Adult Skills. The US portion of the survey, also known as the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC, is administered by the U.S. Department of Education.

The survey gathered data from a representative sample of U.S. adults. NSC’s analysis, conducted in collaboration with the American Institutes for Research, looked at combined 2012-14 data on US workers ages 16-64 who were employed at the time of the survey. (Learn more about AIR’s work and see other studies at the PIAAC Gateway.)

The PIAAC survey includes a cognitive assessment in English measuring the three domains of literacy, numeracy, and “problem-solving in technology-rich environments,” or PS-TRE.

Individuals described in NSC’s report as having “no” digital skills are those without PS-TRE scores; “limited” skills refers to workers with scores below PS-TRE Level 1; “proficient” refers to those who scored at Level 1, and “advanced” combines data from workers who scored at Level 2 or Level 3.

Note: An additional round of U.S. PIAAC data collection was completed in 2017. While 2017 data is not reflected in this report due to the timing of its release to the public, it is largely consistent with earlier years. Learn more about the 2017 data here: