Corporate Partners Unite to Bridge the Digital Divide

By Nicky Lauricella Coolberth, October 02, 2023

Corporate Partners Unite to Bridge the Digital Divide
Comcast, Walmart, AT&T, IBM, others: digital skill building is key to digital inclusion efforts

In a remarkable display of commitment to digital inclusion, more than 70 corporate partners – from Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and chambers of commerce – from across the country have partnered with National Skills Coalition (NSC) and Business Leaders United (BLU) to release a set of guiding principles aimed at closing the digital divide. This initiative coincides with Digital Inclusion Week and underscores the pivotal role of digital skill development in achieving digital inclusion.

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 there’s also a digital skill divide. The digital skill divide is the gulf between people who have access to digital skills and those who don’t.

Earlier this year, an analysis by NSC and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta painted a sobering picture of the digital skill divide, finding that a staggering 92% of jobs now require digital skills, but only two-thirds of the workforce has had an opportunity to build basic digital competencies. This glaring disparity in access to skills disproportionately affects workers of color, low-income people, veterans, and rural residents, thanks to a legacy of structural inequalities and underinvestment.

The principles note the importance of access to broadband and high-quality devices. But, critically, the sign-on also lays out three principles for digital adoption, including:

  • A digital skill foundation for all so that every person has the opportunity to develop basic digital problem-solving skills.  
  • Upskilling for every worker in every workplaceto empower workers with industry- and occupation-specific digital skills to adapt and advance in their careers. 
  • Rapid reskilling for rapid re-employment when workers lose their jobs due to economic disruption and need to train for a new industry. 

A critical time for digital skill advocacy

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic began, policymakers, businesses, and workforce advocates were raising the alarm about the digital skill divide. The pandemic really exacerbated the problem: a decade of planned technological change swept through every industry and every workplace in less than a year. Businesses and workers are still catching up.

And, as technology continues to evolve, it becomes more and more apparent how the digital skill divide prevents equal participation in many parts of American life – from civic engagement and participation in democracy, access to information, and financial inclusion to people’s ability to access educational opportunities, get good jobs, and advance in a career. 

“The rapid pace of technological change in the workplace requires investments in digital skills training so that employers can grow and succeed,” said MJ Ryan, BLU member and Vice President for Workforce Development & Economic Opportunity, Human Resources at Mass General Brigham. “At Mass General Brigham, we hope that elected officials will use these principles as a roadmap for centering digital resilience in our nation’s workforce and education policies.”

The bipartisan infrastructure law (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) that passed in 2021 included landmark investments in digital inclusion through the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program and the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act (DE Act). The legislation provides formula funding and competitive grants to invest in a broad range of digital inclusion activities, including supporting individuals’ adoption and use of broadband internet, digital devices, and digital skills. Significantly, the BEAD program also invests in training and upskilling the workforce needed to install and support new broadband infrastructure.

“New, once-in-a-generation federal investments through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, along with investments and partnerships across the corporate sector, present an opportunity to close the digital skill divide,” said Rachel Unruh, NSC Chief of External Affairs. “These principles provide a roadmap for how public and private investments can be deployed to create economic opportunity. We’re grateful to all our corporate partners for their leadership and vision.”

Fortunately, research shows that public investments in closing the digital skill divide would have major payoffs for workers, businesses, and the economy at large – including increased wages for workers and reduced turnover costs for businesses.

This legislation was an important first step toward closing the digital skill divide, but more investment is needed. Read our recent blog to learn about proposed legislation that NSC is pushing for in Congress, and how states are leading implementation of digital equity investments.

Private sector working to advance digital equity

These once-in-a-generation federal investments are a real opportunity to close the digital divide, especially when taken along with efforts across the private sector. Here are examples of how some of the signatories are making strides in digital inclusion that both complement current federal investments and inspire future efforts:

  • AT&T is collaborating with the New York City Housing Authority’s Youth Tech Corps to help bring technology projects to NYCHA developments throughout the five boroughs. The yearlong pilot program helps students learn technology, leadership, communication and client service skills. The initiative is just one example of how the company’s Digital Navigators Program connects with community orgs to reach those who need access to digital literacy skills the most.

  • Business Council of New York endeavors to understand the needs of employers and workers seeking employment by collaborating with the New York State Department of Labor to collect workforce data via annual workforce development survey. They use the data to help workers be better prepared for the jobs of today and tomorrow through digital literacy initiatives, to change career centers to better assist workers, and helping businesses find and retain workers.
  • Comcast’s Project UP is a comprehensive initiative to advance digital equity and help build a future of unlimited possibilities. This $1 billion initiative includes all of the programs and community partnerships across Comcast, NBCUniversal, and Sky that connect people to the Internet, advance economic mobility, and open doors for the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, storytellers, and creators.
  • Equinix and the Equinix foundation are working to address inequitable access to technology and connectivity that has impacted historically Black colleges and universities. In collaboration with Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee and #BlackTechFutures Research Institute, Equinix is helping to advance digital inclusion by addressing funding for IT infrastructure and research, tech education, and bridging the gap in racial tech disparities.
  • Grey Snow Communications is a 100% tribally owned enterprise owned by the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska. The company provides broadband fiber optic infrastructure construction training in three program areas: Aerial Construction, Underground Construction, and Fiber Splicing through it’s Grey Snow Fiber Academy.The programs offer clients and students the opportunity to join the growing broadband industry.
  • Microsoft has launched the AI Skills Initiative which aims to help people and communities around the world learn how to harness the power of AI while completing AI skills training in response to employer needs.
  • Optimax is the largest manufacturer of precision optics in the country. The company collaborates with Finger Lakes Community college to provide rural training opportunities through BRIDGES Rural. BRIDGES Rural builds the capacity of rural community colleges to respond to regional labor markets and enables economic agility for learners and communities.
  • Tina’s Green Energy Solutions sells and installs electric vehicle charging stations. The company trains 18 – 24-year-olds in underserved communities so they have the technological skills needed to install and maintain electric vehicle charging stations. The company participates in the White House’s Justice 40 initiative.

“We’re proud to join NSC, BLU, and other corporate leaders in signing these principles,” said Dalila Wilson-Scott, EVP and Chief Diversity Officer of Comcast Corporation and President of the Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation. “In addition to making direct investments in proven strategies like digital navigators, Comcast wants to help make sure that more local and national leaders are aware of and take advantage of public sector digital equity funds to invest in the skill development programs that are critical to closing our country’s digital divide.”

Digital inclusion is a key component to a truly inclusive economy

To close the digital divide and realize our nation’s full economic potential, people must be empowered to adapt to technology’s constant evolution. Digital inclusion isn’t just about having access to the internet and devices; it’s about all people having access to the skills and knowledge to navigate and thrive in the digital age.

Furthermore, equitable access to digital skills is a key component to building a truly inclusive economy - one where workers and businesses who are most impacted by economic shifts, as well as workers who face structural barriers of discrimination or lack of opportunity, are empowered to equitably participate in — and benefit from — a growing economy.

Click here to explore the full list of principles and signatories.

As part of National Digital Inclusion Week, National Skills Coalition and Business Leaders United are hosting a Fireside Chat with Comcast’s Dalila Wilson-Scott. She will join NSC CEO Andy Van Kleunen and a panel of thought leaders for a dynamic conversation about how private sector leaders – from small local firms to Fortune 500s – are collaborating with community partners to close the digital skill divide and drive a more equitable, inclusive economy.