The “digital divide” is about access to devices and the internet – but it’s also about access to skills

By , Nicky Lauricella Coolberth, September 15, 2021

Access to foundational and occupational-specific skills as well as reskilling is necessary to close the digital divide and achieve digital equity at work.

When people think about the digital divide, the image that comes to mind is of people who don’t have access to computers and devices – and of people and communities that have limited access to the internet.

But the “digital divide” also refers to the gulf between people who have access to digital skills and those who don’t. Access to digital skills refers to access to foundational digital training that arms people with the knowledge to use current technologies and respond to technological changes. It can also mean access to occupational-specific skills that allow people to adapt and advance in their careers and industry. And it means access to reskillingtraining that allows workers to move from one industry to another in response to structural shifts in the labor market (like those brought about by the pandemic).

There’s no question that structural racism has contributed to the digital divide, including who gets access to digital upskilling. Due to structural racism and occupational segregation, lack of access to digital skill-building opportunities disproportionately impacts people of color. At the same time, people of color are concentrated in jobs more likely to be impacted by rapid technological change. 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.

Lack of access to digital skills laid bare by the pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the importance of digital skills for workers in virtually every industry and occupation into sharp relief. Throughout the country, businesses, workers, students, and parents have been 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.

This is happening in spite of the fact that nearly one in three workers lack foundational digital skills, according to 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.

But even before the pandemic, many workers lacked the foundational digital skills necessary to quickly adapt and upskill as their jobs evolve.

In short, the pandemic accelerated 10 years of planned technological change in workplaces in less than a year. Because we don’t have a comprehensive policy strategy to help workers build digital skills throughout their careers, these shifts threaten to deepen racial inequality and slow economic recovery.

The pandemic demonstrated the urgency of putting high-quality, connected technology in more hands. It also demonstrated that we won’t close the digital divide or realize our nation’s economic potential until we empower all workers to adapt to technology’s constant evolution in the workplace.

NSC’s Work

Since January, National Skills Coalition, together with Business Leaders United (BLU) have been convening Industry Recovery Panels in the infrastructure, manufacturing, healthcare, retail and hospitality sectors to advise the Biden Administration and Congress about what workers and local businesses need from economic recovery policies. The unprecedented acceleration of technology is a shared challenge. All our recovery panels put public investments in digital skills high in their priorities for federal recovery policy.

BLU affiliates have been advocating for new state policies that would make it easier for students and workers to connect with education and skills training opportunities over the internet. This included a push for expansion of broadband in Iowa and the use of federal WIOA funds in Tennessee to increase access to computers and internet hotspots for students and trainees in community college courses. Companies understand that as we emerge from the pandemic workers will need to re-skill for jobs in a new economy, which in many industries includes skills to use a range of new technologies.

NSC’s Skills State Policy and Advocacy Network (SkillSPAN) coalitions are also working to advance policies that increase digital equity at the state level. For example, last November, NSC outlined four ways to promote digital inclusion for California’s workers, and this year, with a significant advocacy push from our CA SkillSPAN state partner, the Governor signed a budget including $6 billion to expand broadband infrastructure and establish grant funding for digital literacy training programs targeted to communities facing barriers to broadband adoption. And, our Texas SkillSPAN partners also successfully advocated for their House-passed budget to include three digital inclusion policies.

A Campaign for Digital Equity @ Work

America needs a comprehensive 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.

Only federal, state, and local policymakers have the power to act at the scale our nation requires to close the digital divide and achieve digital equity at work. Their policy solutions must advance equity and guarantee foundational digital skills for all, ongoing upskilling for incumbent workers, and rapid re-skilling for displaced workers.

That’s why NSC has launched our Digital Equity @ Work campaign and developed five principles that should guide policymakers as they work to close the digital divide and support digital equity at work:

  1. High Quality Hardware in All Hands: The pandemic laid bare the connection between access to personal devices and access to education, training, jobs, healthcare, support services, and social networks. We must put high quality hardware in all hands.
  2. Every Community Connected: Like clean water and electricity, broadband is a foundational utility. But the pandemic has revealed that broadband is America’s most inequitable utility. We must connect every community.
  3. A Digital Skill Foundation for All: Nearly 50 million people in the U.S. need to build foundational digital skills to harness the power of connected devices. Every person must have the opportunity to develop broad-based, flexible digital problem-solving skills for current technologies and ongoing technological shifts.
  4. Upskilling for Every Worker in Every Workplace: Technology is impacting different industries and occupations in different ways. We must empower every worker with industry- and occupational-specific digital skills to adapt and advance in their careers.
  5. Rapid Reskilling for Rapid Re-employment: Each industry has specific technical demands. Overnight the pandemic brought structural shifts to our labor market, reminding us that every worker must have access to rapid reskilling to move from one industry to another.

Will you co-sign these principles and join our movement for digital equity @ work today?