States have just begun to receive vital new funds for broadband access and digital inclusion as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress in 2021. As implementation of this legislation moves forward, National Skills Coalition is publishing new recommendations for state officials and for the workforce and education advocates who are critical to the success of this once-in-a-generation investment.
What is the new funding?
States are have just begun to receive funding for the $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, and by September states will be receiving the planning grant funds for the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act.
The BEAD funding will allow states to expand broadband access to communities and individuals who were previously unserved or under-served by broadband internet. Importantly, once states have a plan in place to reach these populations, states can also invest BEAD funds in workforce development programs for the wide range of occupations necessary for broadband expansion. This is especially important given the stark labor shortages confronting many states and rural areas where broadband expansion will be taking place.
The Digital Equity Act funding will allow states to invest in a variety of digital inclusion activities, including education and workforce programs to help individuals build digital skills. The first phase of the funding is a 12-month State Digital Equity Planning process which kicks off in September (though some states have gotten an early start). NSC has previously published a fact sheet on the Digital Equity Act with details for skills advocates.
What does NSC recommend that state officials do?
NSC’s new recommendations suggest that officials:
- Intentionally gather meaningful input on State Digital Equity Plans from a diverse group of workforce and education partners, small businesses, workers and students.
- Capitalize on knowledge and expertise already possessed by workforce, education, and digital inclusion providers to shape state Digital Equity Plans and activities.
- Identify how previous federal and state investments (such as CARES Act or American Rescue Plan Act funding) have tackled digital equity issues, and where there are successes to be built upon or failures to be learned from.
- Ensure that trusted organizations representing communities of color are involved throughout the digital equity planning and implementation process.
- Establish a mechanism for stakeholders to provide ongoing input after the State Plan is finalized.
- Use the State Planning process to identify additional digital workforce needs and opportunities that may not be able to be addressed via DEA or BEAD funding and should be tackled using state or other investments.
- Ensure that BEAD investments help to advance Digital Equity goals. For example, a state might use Digital Equity Act funding to provide foundational digital skills programs and BEAD funding to provide more advanced industry-specific digital skill-building programs.
- Dedicate a robust portion of BEAD funding to workforce development and career pathway activities, including via industry sector partnerships and/or apprenticeships that result in high-quality, stackable credentials.
- Establish a formal learning and evaluation process. States should articulate a clear vision for how the findings from these programs and services will be captured and disseminated to help iterate and improve each new phase of digital equity and broadband investment.
- Review other existing state workforce and education policies to better align them with Digital Equity goals. For example, incumbent worker training funds should explicitly include digital skills as an allowable use.
What does NSC recommend that workforce and education advocates and practitioners do?
NSC’s new recommendations suggest that advocates and practitioners:
- Participate early and substantively in the Digital Equity Planning process. Advocates can begin by contacting their governor’s office or state broadband office to find out which agency is leading the planning process.
- Share promising or emerging practices from practitioners’ work on digital skill building to inform the State Plan.
- Make sure that organizations that represent covered populations, particularly those that have earned the trust of community members over a significant period of time, are part of shaping the State Plan.
- Propose a process for stakeholders to provide ongoing input after State Plans are finalized.
- Advocate for digital equity investments that support people’s goals and aspirations. Individuals often identify “getting a job” or “getting a better job” as their primary reason for pursuing skill-building opportunities. Practitioners should identify opportunities for Digital Equity Plans to support individuals’ digital skill-building aspirations, while also responding to local labor market demand.
- Ensure that a sizeable portion of BEAD funding is invested in inclusive workforce development. Advocates should encourage state officials to require their BEAD sub grantees to provide high-quality on-the-job training opportunities; set standards for job quality; and prioritize hiring of workers from underrepresented backgrounds.
- Advocate for other existing state workforce and education policies to align with Digital Equity goals. Advocates are often in the best position to identify bottlenecks or barriers in existing policies that are preventing good work on digital skill-building.
- Make certain that valuable data is captured and shared. While individual privacy should be closely protected, aggregate data will be essential to determining whether digital equity programs are meeting the overarching vision of the legislation and the State Plans, or missing the mark.
- Document additional digital-skills-related needs and opportunities that may not be able to be addressed via DEA or BEAD funding and should be tackled using state or other investments.
Read the full recommendations: Expanding Digital Inclusion via the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: Recommendations for States in Implementing the Digital Equity Act and the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program
Our thanks to the more than two dozen National Skills Coalition members who helped inform the development of these recommendations.