New policy brief finds digital literacy skills are necessary for an equitable recovery from Covid-19

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, July 10, 2020

A new brief from National Skills Coalition provides recommendations for policymakers on how to ensure that businesses and workers have the digital literacy skills needed for an equitable recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and recession. In the coming months, NSC will work with partners across the country to advance these recommendations as part of federal and state policies. A key element will be to ensure that digital skills investments help to build broad-based foundational skills as well as more occupationally specific skills needed for the workplace.

Check out the full Digital Skills for an Equitable Recovery brief, or read a summary below.


Today’s jobs have new digital demands

Even before the pandemic, it was apparent that American jobs are undergoing massive technological transformation. In-demand careers increasingly require digital literacy skills, including essential frontline occupations such as home health aides and janitors. Indeed, for many occupations, digital skills are now entry-level competencies for new hires and incumbent workers alike.

Since the pandemic began, digital demands in the US workplace have only accelerated, with workers from frontline jobs to white-collar roles being asked to quickly adapt to new tools and technologies. To succeed in this rapidly changing environment, workers need broad-based digital problem-solving skills that equip them to learn a wide variety of today’s technologies and navigate continued changes in the future — including the development of additional, industry-specific digital skills.


Workers across industries need investment in their digital skills

At least 48 million U.S. workers lack foundational digital skills, and even more lack access to the high-quality training which would empower them to increase their skills to meet future technological shifts.

While digital skill gaps exist in every industry and every demographic group, workers of color are disproportionately affected, in large part due to structural factors that are the product of longstanding inequities in American society. Historically, public policy decisions have played a key role in forming skill gaps, including those that are racially inequitable. Therefore, public policies must now be an integral part of the solution.

Despite the wave of new public attention to digital issues spurred by the Covid pandemic, policy changes have not yet caught up. Our country’s adult education and workforce systems are underfunded—and too often not adequately aligned—making it impossible for these systems to fully address the current challenge. Businesses attempt to fill the gap, but no single company can do it alone.

To meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s workers and businesses, policymakers must invest in the opportunities and supports workers need to upskill and effectively work with new technologies.


Sharpening the definition of digital literacy for the workplace

The American Library Association defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” However, the term digital literacy can have a variety of meanings depending on context.

To account for this, National Skills Coalition is proposing a new definition to describe occupational digital literacy and problem-solving skills which provides more specificity on the practical implementation of digital literacy skills in a workplace context.

To that end, occupational digital literacy and problem-solving skills conveys the cognitive and technical skills that equip individuals to use information and communication technologies effectively within a specific occupation or occupational cluster for the purpose of career advancement and workplace success.


What should policymakers be doing?

Ensuring workers can build digital skills for today and tomorrow will require policy solutions that look at digital skills across contexts while allowing local areas and industry to respond in a way that enables workers to upskill through labor market disruptions, rather than simply react after the fact.

NSC’s Digital Skills for an Equitable Recovery recommends that policymakers:

  1. Make a federal commitment to occupational digital literacy and create a new national grant program, or Digital Literacy Upskilling Grants, to expand access to high quality digital skills instruction that meets industry and worker needs. The federal government should allocate funds to states to administer grants and create a new national grant program to invest in digital skills training best practices across the country. These funds should be available to contextualize digital skills instruction for specific industries, increase instructor professional development, support training costs of incoming and incumbent workers and include a state set-aside to support the development of digital literacy skill gain metrics as part of state postsecondary attainment goals.
  2. Develop a measurable national standard for industry-specific digital upskilling efforts. Congress should define and embed occupational digital literacy in workforce and education policies like WIOA Title I and II, backed by funding to support quality digital skills training through existing policies as well as the new Digital Literacy Upskilling Grants described above. In addition, the Department of Education, in collaboration with the Department of Labor, should conduct a national “digital literacy audit” around education and employment outcomes: Evaluating what skills workers currently have, assessing current and future industry demands for digital skills and developing a strategy to close the gap.
  3. Create a network of “21st Century Industry Partnerships” between businesses, education providers, the public workforce system and community organizations. Industry and sector partnerships will ensure that the significant investments necessary to respond to digital literacy upskilling needs caused by technological changes in the workplace are aligned with employment opportunities in in-demand industries. By helping businesses work together with education and training providers, these partnerships can ensure industry-driven solutions that equip workers with skills that match local employers’ hiring needs.
  4. Incentivize private investment in digital skills training, instruction and upskilling opportunities for incumbent workers by expanding the scope of existing tax policies. While tax credits such as the Workforce Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) currently help drive private investments in recruitment and training, the future of work will require more robust incentives. Specifically preferencing work-based learning and upskilling for incumbent workers as eligible costs under WOTC will help kickstart private investment in essential digital skills training.

Learn more about each of these recommendations, and how NSC’s proposals fit into the larger conversation on digital inclusion, in Digital Skills for an Equitable Recovery.