Using Digital Skills Data to Design Strong State Policies and Illustrate the Urgency of Taking Action

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, June 20, 2024

Faced with a quickly evolving labor market in which 92 percent of jobs require digital skills, state leaders are hurrying to ensure that both new and existing public investments are effectively preparing workers with in-demand skills.

Meanwhile, workforce and education advocates want to be certain that policymakers incorporate established best practices in workforce development as part of their digital skills policies.

And stakeholders across both public and private sectors are looking for clear, succinct data to illustrate the challenges and opportunities facing US workers and businesses when it comes to technology.

National Skills Coalition has put together this blog post as an accessible resource for advocates and policymakers who want to understand the data resources they can draw on to design good policies and make the case for the importance of investing in digital skills.

A quick refresher: The current landscape for digital skills funding

As of last month, all 50 states have submitted their Digital Equity Capacity Grant proposals to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). This summer, roughly $800 million in federal DE funds will begin flowing to the states, who will then regrant it to local partners.

A portion of the $42 billion in federal Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funds are already flowing to support broadband projects, which can include workforce development and education. BEAD subgrantees will primarily be Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Simultaneously, some states are using American Rescue Plan Act funding to support digital skill-building programs: Tennessee has devoted nearly $28 million in ARPA funding for its Digital Skills, Employment, and Workforce Development grants. Others are creatively using federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) discretionary funding: California is dedicating $9 million to support skill-building (including digital skills) for farmworkers.

At the state level, established higher education and workforce programs such as Virginia’s FastForward, Indiana’s Next-Level Jobs, and Ohio’s TechCred are already providing important investments in digital skills. And new upskilling initiatives are rapidly emerging thanks to the workforce demand created by more than a trillion dollars in federal clean energy, semiconductor manufacturing, and other infrastructure investments. Growing demand for workers with cybersecurity and/or AI-related skills will only increase the importance of digital skill-building opportunities.

How can policymakers and advocates use digital skills data?

  • To help shape Requests for Proposals and other policy documents
  • To make the case for additional funding
  • To implement existing policies and inform the development of new policies
  • To illuminate digital skills issues as part of media interviews and public presentations

What data can provide a snapshot of people’s current digital skills?

Understanding the baseline that individuals are starting from can help policymakers and advocates alike to accomplish their goals. Among the data resources available to state leaders: NSC’s new 2-page fact sheets on digital skills. These are currently available for 18 states, with more in the works. (Scroll to the bottom of the page to view the fact sheets.)

  • Some states collected baseline data on residents’ digital skills as part of their Digital Equity Planning process (called Digital Opportunity Planning in some states). View state plans here.
  • All states can tap into federal Internet and Computer Use Survey data collected by NTIA and the Census Bureau. (See NTIA’s overview blog post and Data Explorer.) This data shows what percentage of state residents report engaging in online activities such as searching for a job, taking online classes, selling items online, or working remotely via the internet. While this is not a direct measure of skills, it can be a useful proxy In other words, if people are participating in these online activities, it’s reasonable to assume that they have acquired at least foundational digital skills. Importantly, state leaders can use the Census IPUMS website to break out data by specific sub-group, such as individuals with disabilities.
  • States can also refer to national data collected as part of the Survey of Adult Skills, known as the PIAAC. National Skills Coalition used a subset of this data for our report The New Landscape of Digital Literacy (slides, full report, racial equity fact sheet). Unlike other data sources that rely on self-reported surveys, this is an actual test of skills, rigorously administered by researchers. The take-home finding: Fully 31 percent of currently employed US workers ages 16-64 have limited or no foundational digital skills.

How can states measure increases in digital skills?

NSC strongly encourages states to established standardized, measurable indicators to assess the outcomes of digital skills programs. Simply counting the outputs (that is, numbers of classes attended or number of individuals served) will not give states meaningful information about the observable changes – that is, the outcomes – that funding has wrought.

Instead, states should make sure that every programmatic grantee is required to report on a short, clear set of outcome measures. See specific recommended measures in our February 2024 blog post, which also contains more detail on available data sources.

How can states gather data from employers about the demand for digital skills?

Having firsthand data about the demand for digital skills in a state or local area can be a powerful tool in combination with the workforce digital skills data described above. Commonly used mechanisms for data gathering include:

  • Via regularly-scheduled employer surveys conducted by chambers of commerce, industry associations, or economic development agencies
  • As part of Employer Advisory Councils hosted by Career Technical Education (CTE) programs funded under the Perkins Act
  • Via local or state Workforce Development Boards
  • Through industry sector partnerships that bring together multiple employers in a single industry to discuss talent development needs
  • Via state Labor Market Information (LMI) agencies or economic development entities that subscribe to databases that provide access to reams of Help Wanted ads and related labor market demand data

Putting the pieces together: How this data can be used

  • States should draw on the above data sources to inform their forthcoming Requests for Proposals for local re-granting of Digital Equity funds.
  • States should make this data available to BEAD subgrantees to ensure that their workforce proposals are informed by the latest information
  • State broadband leaders should stay in regular conversation with their peers in workforce and education agencies to ensure that this data is used to inform other state-level investments
  • Advocates and policymaker should select representative nuggets of information from the above data sources to use in conversations with journalists, in public presentations, and on social media to help audiences understand the opportunities and challenges at play.