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The House of Representatives Just Reauthorized the National Apprenticeship Act. Here’s What it Means for Workers

The House passage of the National Apprenticeship Act (NAA) is an important down payment on the urgent need to not only modernize our national apprenticeship system but also expand equitable access to apprenticeship and work-based learning for all workers. The bill, first introduced in March by Representative Susan Davis (D-CA), invests significant new resources in expanding pre-apprenticeship, registered apprenticeship and youth apprenticeship to more workers in more industries. 

Investments in Industry Partnerships

The legislation authorizes funding to support the administration and expansion of apprenticeship – up to $400 million in funding in 2021 and $800 million by 2025 for grant contracts to partnerships between workforce and education stakeholders. Expanding apprenticeship programs by prioritizing investments in industry partnerships is an approach that National Skills Coalition has long championed. It’s also an approach that is consistent with the bipartisan PARTNERS Act, which was introduced by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Drew Ferguson (R-GA), Davis (D-CA), and Brett Guthrie (R-KY). Bringing together different stakeholders – from businesses, education and training providers to human service organizations and labor – who have the knowledge and experience to help meet the needs of workers and businesses, and leverage public investments in apprenticeship, is key to building an inclusive economic recovery.  

Investments in Pre-apprenticeship and Support Services  

It is not enough to simply expand access to apprenticeship by supporting industry partnerships, we must also invest in pre-apprenticeship programs –which is particularly important for people of color and women who have been historically underrepresented in certain industries and apprenticeships. The NAA legislation prioritizes access to pre-apprenticeship programs, support services like affordable child care and transportation, and post-employment support like career counseling. These supports are critical to broadening the pipeline of workers with access to and success in apprenticeship programs. The investments are also consistent with the bipartisan BUILDS Act led by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Rob Portman (R-OH) and Representatives Paul Mitchell (R-MI), Bonamici (D-OR), Glenn Thompson (R-PA) and Jim Langevin (D-RI).  

Making Data Available to Help Ensure Equitable Outcomes

It is no secret that the devastating economic impacts of COVID-19 has been disproportionately felt by workers of color, women, immigrants, and workers with a high school degree or less. Not to mention the small businesses – including minority-owned small businesses – that have already gone under or are vulnerable to shutting down. Policymakers must ensure that investments in apprenticeship are done with an eye towards advancing racial equity in the workforce.  It is encouraging that the bill calls for data sharing on apprenticeship program outcomes, including in alignment with the Department of Education, consistent with NSC recommendations. Data transparency is key to ensuring that we’re truly building an inclusive economic recovery that leaves no one behind. 

What’s Next? 

The bill’s passage by the House is the latest step in the continued momentum in recent years to expand apprenticeship across the country, including increased appropriation over the past five years and commitments by both the Obama and Trump administrations to expand apprenticeships.  It has been 80 years since the National Apprenticeship Act has been updated. Reauthorizing NAA is a necessary first step in a series of steps that a new Congress and Biden administration must build on to equitably expand apprenticeship, pre-apprenticeship, and the supports that workers need to succeed in those programs.  

President-elect Biden has already made expanding registered apprenticeship – both as part of an infrastructure package and as a strategy to increase access to good jobs – a high priority. National Skills Coalition is committed to working with the Biden administration and Congress to make sure there is follow through on those commitments. Workers and businesses deserve action! 

Encourage your member of Congress to support and inclusive economic recovery today. 

Posted In: Work Based Learning
Louisiana becomes fourth state to adopt National Skills Coalition’s criteria on quality non-degree credentials

On September 23, Louisiana’s Board of Regents became the fourth state to adopt National Skills Coalition’s criteria on quality non-degree credentials, building on their participation in NSC’s Quality Postsecondary Credentials State Policy Academy.  

A leadership team comprised of representatives of the Louisiana Board of Regents, Louisiana Community and Technical College System, Louisiana Workforce CommissionLouisiana Economic Development and Louisiana Department of Education, along with various other agencies and organizations, has developed criteria to define quality credentials for Louisiana. For Louisiana, a certificate or industry-based certification will be considered a quality postsecondary credential of value if it meets the consensus criteria and leads directly to an occupation that, at a minimum, maintains a 20% wage premium over a high school diploma in Louisiana. 

Their work is particularly timely as states are looking to develop quality training programs in response to COVID-19’s impact on the economy. The consensus criteria were developed through NSC’s work with agency leaders from twelve states and national workforce and higher education stakeholders. The criteria should allow state policymakers to be comfortable supporting these programs with public funds as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 recession, students to be confident about selecting high-quality training, and employers to understand which programs are effectively preparing students for careers. 

Louisiana also developed two categories of credentials through this process, acknowledging that individuals start their postsecondary pathways at different points: “Quality Postsecondary Credentials of Value” and “On-Ramp Credentials.” Though an on-ramp credential does not meet credential of value standards, it provides a means for individuals with lower skills to get on a training pathway and build toward a higher-level credential. Colorado and Oregon are also considering operationalizing an on-ramp credential definition.  

Through the Academy, state agency teams from six states are working together to advance a high-quality postsecondary skills strategy so more residents can attain quality credentials. The four consensus criteria that should be considered for a credential to be identified as quality are: 1) evidence of substantial job opportunities; 2) evidence of the competencies mastered by credential holders; and 3) evidence of the employment and earnings outcomes of individuals after obtaining the credential. The fourth criterion is that the credentials would ideally stack to additional education or training.  

To date, Alabama, Colorado, Louisiana, and Oregon have adopted the consensus quality criteria with NSC’s assistance. The criteria have been adjusted to account for the unique needs and circumstances of each state.    

Oregon’s multi-stakeholder Adult Learner Advisory Committee, a part of Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Committee,including staff from relevant agencies and leaders from the community formally adopted the criteria over the summer and is now operationalizing the definition. The state is trying to discern whether to use the Self Sufficiency Standard developed by the University of Washington, as part of its wage threshold criteria. The Standard is a budget-based measure of the real cost of living and an alternative to the official poverty measure. Oregon leaders find it better captureshousing costs.  

Colorado’s policy academy team, which includes multiple governmentcommunity stakeholders, and NSC’s local partner, Colorado Skills2Competehas adopted the criteria and is considering using the MIT Living Wage calculator in discerning adequate wage gains as evidence of sufficient earnings outcomes. Colorado also added an additional criterionportability—as has Oregon.   

Like Louisiana, Alabama included stakeholders from different government education and workforce agencies in the adoption of their its criteria, which is led by Governor Kay Ivey’s Office of Education and Workforce TransformationAlabama’s Committee on Credentialing and Career Pathways adopted the NSC consensus criteria, as well as a requirement of portability across or within an industry sector to create their Compendium of Valuable Credentials, or list of quality credentials. Like the other states, Alabama sees its quality credential work helping the state meet its goal of adding 500,000 credential holders to the workforce by 2025.

Posted In: Work Based Learning

The U.S. needs to invest in training incumbent workers for an inclusive economic recovery

  ·   By Katie Brown and Katie Spiker
The U.S. needs to invest in training incumbent workers for an inclusive economic recovery

The pandemic has caused a major economic shift for businesses and workers. Countless companies have had to quickly upskill their workers, equipping them with the skills they need to pivot to digital or remote services.

As a result, the importance of efficiently and effectively training and onboarding workers with the right skills for the job has become an increasingly critical.

National Skills Coalition's latest report: It's Incumbent on U.S.: Leveraging federal policy to maximize investment in incumbent worker training and business’ pipeline development offers recommendations to Congress on how to address this pressing issue including:

  1. Creating a new Federal Incumbent Worker Training Fund under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to provide dedicated resources to states to fund partnerships between employers, education and training providers, and other stakeholders.

  2. Creating new "21st Century Extension Partnerships," aligning workforce and economic development strategies. These partnerships should provide technical assistance to small and medium-sized employers, coordinate funded training for businesses in the same industry, and efficiently encourage companies to adopt latest industry methods and technologies.

  3. Leveraging changes to the tax code to empower private investment in worker training for both new hires and the upskilling of existing workers.


Investing in incumbent workers is a critical layoff aversion strategy for small and mid-sized companies at a time of historic worker displacement and can be a path to better equity in the workforce.

The problem: Current economic and workforce development programs fail to support business engagement in training new or existing workers

Small and mid-sized business leaders often lack the tools necessary to develop a pipeline of skilled workers or upskill incumbent workers. Existing policies, however, fail to address this need.

The U.S. drastically underinvests in workforce policy meant to upskill and train workers already on the job, despite this being an effective and efficient way to connect learning to career pathways. Where we do invest public dollars, polices often lack alignment between economic and workforce development necessary to bring together programs meant to spur business innovation with those designed to help workers benefit from and contribute to that innovation. And finally, public policy fails to scale up or adequately leverage existing private investments in incumbent workers in a way that could maximize what businesses are already spending on their employees.

The solution: Policy change to maximize public and private investment in incumbent workers

Congress has the chance to reverse course and implement key policy changes that would support businesses and workers now and as our nation adjusts to the new realities of the post-pandemic world. Ideally, these policy changes should connect small and mid-sized businesses— particularly those in COVID-19 impacted industries—to public resources and to other companies in the same industry to scale solutions. And Congress must leverage private and public investments to maximize upskilling opportunities for both new and incumbent workers.

Read the full report today for more details on these recommendations.

Posted In: Federal Funding, Tax Policies, Work Based Learning, Future of Work

Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery: A Call for Action, Equity, and Accountability.

  ·   By Andy Van Kleunen,
Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery: A Call for Action, Equity, and Accountability.

As I draft this message with National Skills Coalition’s Board of Directors, I keep returning to this fact: The emotional, physical, and economic toll that the COVID-19 health pandemic has taken on our country can’t be overstated. Our coalition stands with the working people and local businesses who have been most impacted by the pandemic’s economic fallout.

The deeply inequitable consequences of this economic crisis for Black, Latino, Indigenous, and other communities of color, for immigrants, and for people with a high school diploma or less lay bare our nation’s history. A history of structural racism that kills people of color and robs them of their livelihood. A history of public policies that undermine the aspirations of working people who want to train for a better job. A history of economic recovery strategies that pick winners and losers rather than creating real pathways to prosperity for everyone.

But today, as the NSC Board, we come to you in a spirit of hope, responsibility, and determination with the release of Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery: A Call for Action, Equity, and Accountability. This call to action offers a vision for the role that skills policy can play in an inclusive recovery. A recovery in which workers and businesses most impacted by this recession, as well as workers previously held back by structural barriers of discrimination or opportunity, are empowered to equitably participate in and benefit from economic expansion and restructuring.

Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery will guide our coalition’s work over the next two years. And over the coming months, we will share actionable legislative agendas and in-depth policy solutions that achieve the goals we put before you today. Solutions that state and federal policymakers can run with. Solutions based on the experience and expertise of our member businesses, labor-management partnerships, community organizations, community colleges, and education and workforce experts. Solutions that will require your advocacy to make them real.

America cannot train its way out of an economic crisis, nor can skills policy shoulder alone the weight of a more inclusive economy. Inclusive skills policy on its own will not dismantle structural racism, bring economic security to every worker, or ignite sustainable growth for every small business. A web of policies and practices contributes to these goals. But skills policy has an essential role to play and must be part of our nation’s path forward.

So it’s with a sense of hope, responsibility, and determination that we ask you to walk with us on this path and shape this journey.

In solidarity,

Andy Van Kleunen, CEO and Board member, along with the rest of the NSC Board

Scott Paul (Chair)

Alma Salazar (Vice Chair)

Jessica Fraser (Secretary)

Alice Pritchard (Treasurer)

Daniel Bustillo

Brenda Dann-Messier

Melinda Mack

Ned McCulloch

Girard Melancon

Rory O'Sullivan

Grant Shmelzer

Abby Snay

Van Ton-Quinlivan

Portia Wu

Posted In: Future of Work, Work Based Learning, Career and Technical Education, Higher Education Access, Federal Funding, Work-Based Learning, Postsecondary Education, Skills and Supportive Services, Upskilling

3 key policies to support young parents via workforce development

  ·   By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock,
3 key policies to support young parents via workforce development

A new brief from National Skills Coalition highlights three touchstones for policymakers to keep in mind when developing interventions to support young parents. The brief, Young Parents and Workforce Development in a Post-Pandemic World, is available now.

There are approximately 4.5 million American parents who are between the ages of 18-24.  Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, many young parents faced significant challenges in balancing their jobs and childrearing responsibilities with efforts to build additional skills and advance in their careers.

As policymakers and workforce advocates adapt o a pandemic-affected world, ensuring that skill-building policies are intentionally inclusive of this population can help to ensure a level playing field for all of America’s workers, regardless of their age or parental status.

A holistic approach to workforce

While NSC’s recommended policies center on workforce development and education, research shows that it is vital for them to also include the ancillary supports — such as childcare, tuition, and transportation assistance — that are necessary for young parents to attain their education and career goals.

As policymakers take action to support young parents and other constituents who are scrambling to find their economic footing, three touchstones will be crucial to incorporate. In each case, advocates and policymakers should be mindful that the enactment of strong policies should be supported with appropriate amounts of funding, guidance, and technical assistance to enable high-quality implementation at the state and local level.

Policy touchstones to inform action

  • Invest in accelerated pathways. Strategies such as Integrated Education and Training, Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), and guided pathways have demonstrated effectiveness in helping individuals with skill gaps, which include many young parents, to quickly prepare for in-demand jobs.

  • Respond to evolving digital inclusion needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid existing discrepancies in home broadband internet access, digital device access, and digital literacy skills. People of color are disproportionately affected by these disparities, as are parents. Given that many young parents are people of color, it is important to ensure that new policies to support education and workforce development in a pandemic-affected world help to remedy rather than magnify equity gaps.

  • Provide high-quality childcare. It’s so straightforward a solution that it may seem difficult to believe that most workforce programs don’t fund childcare for their participants. But many programs do not have the resources to provide such services, thus leaving young parents burdened with figuring out their own childcare arrangements.  Policymakers and skills advocates should create and expand investments in high-quality childcare programs for workforce development participants, including young parents.

Learn more about each of these touchstones in the full Young Parents and Workforce Development in a Post-Pandemic World report.

Posted In: Training Policy in Brief, Work Based Learning, Future of Work

How states can rev up their recoveries through upskilling

  ·   By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock,
How states can rev up their recoveries through upskilling

The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted and accelerated two trends that were already occurring in the American workplace: First, the demand for new skills and competenciesincluding digital skills, from workers at every level. Second, the growing importance of investing in employer-based upskilling strategies that can help already-employed workers adapt to changing skill needs on the job, as well as new jobseekers who are preparing for employment at a particular company 

A new report from National Skills Coalition provides a roadmap for state policymakers and skills advocates eager to take action on these issues. Funding Resilience: How public policies can support businesses in upskilling workers for a changing economy details the strengths and shortcomings of state incumbent worker training funds, and makes recommendations for better state policies in this important area.   

Uneven patchwork of policies leaves many workers and businesses out in the cold 

Even before the pandemic, the US was not investing nearly enough in proven strategies to help incumbent workers upskill and new workers enter jobs. Today, only thirty states provide any dedicated state funds for incumbent-worker training -- and among those that do, funding reaches only a tiny fraction of potentially eligible workers and businesses.  

Funding Resilience details the current landscape of state policies that support employers’ in-house upskilling efforts, and explains the major bottlenecks and barriers preventing widespread replication of effective practices. Some of these barriers can be addressed through simple revenue-neutral changes that will not affect state budgets, such as making application cycles more frequent to match the speed of business.   

An opportunity to strengthen policies as states launch COVID economic recovery efforts 

The report makes recommendations for how policymakers can take action to change the trajectory and equip more businesses to implement upskilling programs that respond to emerging labor market demands. These timely ideas are particularly relevant for policymakers spearheading COVID recovery efforts, especially given that many businesses will need support for rapid re-skilling as previously unemployed workers return to the labor market. 

To preview the report’s conclusion: States with existing incumbent worker policies should strengthen them, and those without such policies should advance them. Reinvigorating state incumbent worker training policies is necessary to ensure that the essential workers and industries that the United States depends on can flourish in a post-pandemic economy.  

Enthusiastic advocacy from businesses and workers – combined with the growing public recognition that existing workforce investments are simply not sufficient for the present moment – can provide the momentum necessary to galvanize policymakers to act.   

Get all the details in the full Funding Resilience report. 

Posted In: Federal Funding, Work Based Learning, Future of Work, Upskilling

Small business is at the heart of an inclusive economic recovery

  ·   By Rachel Vilsack,
Small business is at the heart of an inclusive economic recovery

No sector was immune to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and recession. But the path to economic recovery will look different on an industry-by-industry basis – some of the jobs lost or furloughed due to the pandemic will simply not come back, some small businesses are struggling to remain afloat, and the outlook on how long it will take business to return to normal grows more uncertain. 

Good skills policies for an inclusive economic recovery must incorporate the needs of businesses so that investments in education and training are tied to labor market demand and leverage best practices, like work-based learning, to train workers for skilled positions.

Sector recovery so far

Payroll employment gains occurred over the last three months, with month-over-month comparisons illustrating what industries are coming back online as states progress along their reopening plans. Yet the announcement of an economic recession with a February 2020 peak in economic activity – coinciding with a near economic stoppage in March – makes for a complex story in how far this recovery must go to regain the 13 million jobs still lost.

Here are some notable highlights in industry employment between February and July 2020:

  • Professional and technical services, down 1.6 million jobs – This industry spans high-skill professional business services – like information technology, engineering, and marketing – to company headquarters and a range of office and administrative services to support businesses. While workers in professional occupations were more likely to telework during the pandemic, the temporary help services sector saw the greatest job losses over the last three month as hiring paused and staffing services were not needed.

  • Retail trade, down 913,000 jobs – Like the leisure and hospitality sector, retail trade businesses were halted in the early months of the pandemic. One notable exception was grocery stores that continued to add jobs to their payroll over the past few months, as these jobs were deemed essential. Yet the headlines have been filled with large retail chains cutting stores or closing altogether. Without retraining and other supportive services, some adults will find it difficult to compete in a labor market saturated with job applicants, especially when one in three retail workers lack digital skills.

Finally, while no sector experienced job growth between February and June 2020, utilities (8,000), mining (93,000) and information (330,000) had the smallest national job losses.

Businesses can drive industry recovery

While the pandemic disproportionately impacted businesses in certain industries, there has also been varying effects by business size. Small businesses are essential to our economy, providing vital services and employment opportunities to local communities and residents. They were also most heavily impacted by the economic disruption of the last five months. Estimates of small business closures already surpassed the 100,000 mark and the number of small businesses open at all was still 20% below their pre-pandemic levels, as of mid-July.

Businesses are an integral part of an inclusive economic recovery. Through local and regional industry sector partnerships, small employers – along with community colleges, the workforce system, unions or labor-management partnerships, and community organizations – can take a leadership role in shaping re-training strategies to meet their skill needs while providing pathways for workers to good jobs in demand. This work already naturally begun during the pandemic to support employers who faced shortages for frontline health workers. And these partnerships should expand to other sectors who need skilled workers and for local businesses who want to advance the skills of their existing workforce to respond to workplace challenges associated with technological change.

An inclusive economic recovery for small businesses must include investments to ensure they – and the communities they call home – return stronger than their pre-pandemic economic conditions. This includes skills policies that provide displaced workers with the occupational mobility to move from contracting industries to skilled jobs in growing ones, supports participation in local sector partnerships, and provides small firms with publicly subsidized on-the-job training, work-based learning, and upskilling for their workers.

Take action

With unprecedented job loss due to the pandemic, displaced workers need a legislative response that invests in our recovery to reskill displaced workers for new jobs in growing industries and support businesses who want to upskill workers still on the job. Yet, the Senate’s recent package includes $1 billion in workforce funding, or only about $20 of re-employment support for each person laid off during the recession.

Stimulus investments also need to help keep workers on the job and empower businesses to upskill current workers with the digital and occupational skills necessary to succeed in 21st century careers. We are calling on Congress to invest $1 billion in a new Incumbent Worker Training formula fund that supports bringing industry partnerships to scale and empower incumbent worker training. 

Make your voice heard: investments in our public workforce system and industry partnerships are necessary for businesses to be a part of an inclusive economic recovery.

Posted In: Federal Funding, Work Based Learning, Sector Partnerships
New report charts path to reemployment for workers left behind by nation’s pandemic response

The recent health crisis - and unprecedented, rapid job loss associated with it - has illuminated how unprepared the United States is to help workers who lose their jobs reskill to prepare for and successfully enter new employment. Policy responses to the current crisis – while critical – have fallen short of addressing challenges workers and businesses face. In a new report, National Skills Coalition outlines an aligned, comprehensive, reemployment accord to respond to current challenges and prepare for an inclusive economic recovery that addresses prior policy shortcomings and moves all workers and businesses towards success in the 21st century.

This path forward, outlined in A 21st Century Reemployment Accord, includes four key pieces:

  1. Expand access to skills training by making workers who lose their jobs eligible for a Dislocation Training Account, providing up to $15,000 in public funds to invest in training through an apprenticeship program, with a community organization or at a community or technical college. Studies suggest financial concerns are the largest barrier to workers succeeding in training. Reskilling for jobs of the twenty-first century will require short and longer-term training, frequently outside of traditional degree programs, yet today’s workers are often unable to access public funds to support training for quality non-degree credentials.

  2. Launch a federal “Reemployment Distribution Fund,” providing access to income support, through robust unemployment insurance and wage-replacement subsidies, that mitigate the financial impact of job loss on workers, their families, and communities. An initial investment of $20 billion as well as sustainable funding, should empower states to draw down funds to cover the length of training and job search necessary for workers to access a job of the twenty-first century. A first step for Congress to accomplish these goals would be to expand Trade Adjustment Assistance to cover a far larger set of workers, such as those who lose their jobs permanently due to automation.

  3. Create a network of “Twenty-First Century Industry Partnerships” among businesses, education providers, the public workforce system, and community organizations to ensure the significant public and private investments necessary to respond to worker dislocation caused by technological changes in the workplace align with employment opportunities in in-demand industries. Industry and sector partnerships are a best practice across the country but need to be expanded to more industries in more local areas to reach the scale necessary to respond to challenges associated with technological change in the workplace. This expansion will mean a dedicated federal investment.

  4. Maximize eligibility for and access to other support services under existing federal programs for workers during the reemployment process. Barriers to accessing childcare, transportation, and other support services — such as eligibility that doesn’t permit workers to access subsidies while in training programs, underfunding that leads to long waiting lists, or the fact that our social safety net programs reach too few people — make it harder for workers to succeed in training programs necessary for reemployment. To maximize retention and success in a new job, these services should be available to workers during the transition period in a new job, as well. Any federal response to job loss caused by technological change needs to provide workers with access to comprehensive, robust support services that improve worker success and retention.


The new report is the second in several publications National Skills Coalition is releasing this summer detailing recommendations for an inclusive and equitable economic recovery from Covid-19. Read the full brief for more detail on how to modernize reemployment to serve workers and businesses.

Posted In: Federal Funding, Career and Technical Education, Work Based Learning, Future of Work
Digital literacy skills are necessary for an equitable economic recovery from Covid-19, new report finds

A new report 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-demand careers increasingly require digital literacy skills, including essential frontline occupations such as home health aides and janitors. For many occupations, digital skills are now entry-level competencies for new hires and incumbent workers alike. Digital skills investments must help to build broad-based foundational skills as well as more occupationally specific skills needed for the workplace.

The new brief, Digital Skills for an Equitable Recovery, is the first in several publications National Skills Coalition will release this summer detailing recommendations for an inclusive and equitable economic recovery from Covid-19.

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. As public policy decisions have played a key role in forming skill gaps, including those that are racially inequitable, they must now be an integral part of the solution. Thus, Digital Skills for an Equitable Recovery outlines key recommendations for federal policymakers, as well as a new definition to describe occupational digital literacy and problem-solving skills.

Read the full report today.

Posted In: Federal Funding, Work Based Learning

Nearly 1 in 3 workers lack foundational digital skills, new report finds

  ·   By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock,
Nearly 1 in 3 workers lack foundational digital skills, new report finds

Note: NSC will be hosting a webinar exploring findings from this report on June 3, 2020. Register now.

A new report from National Skills Coalition provides hard data to illustrate the uneven landscape of US workers’ digital literacy skills, and outlines opportunities to invest in digital skill-building as part of an inclusive economic recovery.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought home the importance of digital skills for workers in virtually every industry and occupation. Throughout the United States, people are 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. But even before the pandemic, many workers lacked the foundational digital skills necessary to quickly adapt and upskill as their jobs evolve.

Overall, nearly one in three workers lack foundational digital skills, according to the report, 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. The data refers to workers ages 16-64 who were employed at the time of the survey. (For more information about the data source, see “Where does this data come from?” below.)

How are digital skills being defined?

For this report, National Skills Coalition defined four levels of foundational digital skills:

  • No digital skills: People with no digital skills failed to meet one or more of the three baseline criteria to even take the full digital skills assessment: 1) prior computer use, 2) willingness to take the computer-based assessment, or 3) ability to complete four out of six very basic computer tasks, such as using a mouse or highlighting text on screen. 

  • Limited digital skills: People with limited digital skills can complete only very simple digital tasks that have a generic interface and just a few steps. As an example, people at this level would have a difficult time sorting email responses to an event invitation into pre-existing folders to keep track of who can and cannot attend an event. 

  • Proficient digital skills: People at this level would typically struggle with tasks that require the use of both generic and specific technology applications. For example, a person might not be able to complete a task involving with the use of a new type of online form, and the need to navigate across multiple pages and applications to answer the test question. This task may have multiple steps, and may require the use of tools (such as the “sort” function) to solve the problem. The person may have to identify the goal themselves, and engage in higher-level reasoning to solve the problem.

  • Advanced digital skills: At this level, a person might have to make use of an online form that they are encountering for the first time. In doing so, they might have to define for themselves the goal of the problem they are solving, and use inferential reasoning in solving the problem. They might need to navigate across different online pages and applications, carry out multiple steps of a task, and evaluate the relevance of a set of items to discard distractors.

How do digital skill gaps differ by industry?

Digital skill gaps occur across all industries. However, they are especially high in the construction, transportation, and storage sectors, where fully half (50 percent) of all workers have limited or no digital skills. More than one-third of workers in several other major industries also have digital skill gaps, including retail (37 percent), hospitality (36 percent), manufacturing (35 percent) and health and social work (33 percent).

The number of workers with significant skill gaps is lower, but still concerning, in the finance, insurance, and real estate sector (where 19 percent have limited or no digital skills), and education sector (15 percent).

A full list of digital skill gaps by industry sector and broad occupational category is included in the report being released today. In addition, National Skills Coalition previously released five industry-specific fact sheets on digital literacy.

What do we know about digital skills on the job?

Many workers who have serious digital skill gaps are nevertheless employed in jobs that require them to use computers. NSC’s analysis found that fully 38 percent of workers with no digital skills have jobs that require either moderate or complex computer skills. An even higher percentage of workers with limited skills (43 percent) are employed in jobs that require moderate or complex computer usage.

Previous research on foundational skills conducted by NSC found that workers’ skill gaps are an invisible drag on productivity, and that people often spend considerable extra time and effort covering for their skill gaps or “muddling through” work tasks. Tactics include relying on help from co-workers or family members and delaying or avoiding tasks that require digital skills, among others.

A lack of skills is not just a problem for workers themselves. NSC’s new report found that one-fifth (20 percent) of workers with no digital skills are supervising other workers. Among workers with limited skills, an even higher percentage (33 percent) are supervisors. Supervisors’ own digital skill gaps can act as a productivity bottleneck that delays adoption or usage of new digital tools by entire teams. 

How does fragmented knowledge affect digital upskilling approaches?

It may seem surprising that in this day and age some workers have few or no digital skills. It is important to note that many of these workers may have fragmented knowledge: That is, they may be comfortable using a mobile phone to text a photo, but not be familiar with how to operate a mouse or upload a job application.

This is particularly true for individuals who do not own a desktop or laptop computer at home (23 percent of US households fall into this category) and/or who have smartphone-only internet access—that is, they don’t have home broadband internet access. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey showed that people of color are more likely to have smartphone-only internet access, with 23 percent of Black respondents and 25 percent of Latino respondents falling into this category, compared to just 12 percent of whites.

Policymakers and advocates seeking to help these workers upskill should be careful not to underestimate their ingenuity and expertise. Leaders should ensure that workers have a voice in identifying what skill-building opportunities they need, what support is necessary to ensure their success, and how their employers can most effectively be engaged in upskilling conversations.

Understanding the phenomenon of fragmented knowledge can help leaders avoid making assumptions about who lacks digital skills and why, and which interventions can help people make bridges between the skills they have and the skills they need.

How do demographics affect digital skill gaps?

Due in large measure to structural forces in American society, digital skill gaps are closely correlated with several demographic variables. In particular, individuals with limited or no digital skills are likely to have a high school education or less; to have low earnings; and to have limited literacy skills.

Notably, younger workers are far from immune to digital skills gaps. Indeed, individuals under the age of 35 make up fully one-quarter (25 percent) of workers with no digital skills, and 29 percent of those with limited skills.

While white workers are a plurality of those with digital skill gaps, workers of color are disproportionately likely to face such gaps. Those facing barriers include both US-born workers and immigrants. NSC explores these issues at length in a recent fact sheet, Applying a Racial Equity Lens to Digital Literacy.

How can policymakers and advocates take action?

Policymakers, business leaders, educators, and workforce advocates can use the information provided in this report to inform their efforts to upskill US workers and equip employers with the skilled workforce they need.

Key steps that policymakers should take include:

  • Embedding digital literacy and problem-solving skills as allowable or required activities under existing workforce development, adult education, and higher education policies

  • Investing in new Digital Literacy Upskilling grants to expand access to high quality digital skills instruction that meets industry and worker needs. These grants should support the development and implementation of programs that embed digital literacy skills as part of broader occupational skills training, integrated education and training, and other accelerated learning strategies.

    • One model for this is the Digital Equity Act, now under consideration in Congress, which would create two new federal grant programs to support digital literacy.

    • At the state level, policymakers can introduce state-level legislation or an administrative policy mirroring the federal-facing Digital Equity Act, but should also provide resources and technical assistance for adult education programs that serve workers and learners. These programs are an important existing avenue for digital skill-building.

    • Incentivizing private investment in digital skills training, instruction, and upskilling opportunities for incumbent workers by expanding the scope of existing tax policies like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) to allow employers to provide essential upskilling opportunities, both in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and over the longer term.


More detailed recommendations on how state and federal policy can support digital upskilling will be available in a future publication from National Skills Coalition, forthcoming in July 2020.

Where does the data come from?

Data used in this report comes from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Survey of Adult Skills. The US portion of the survey, also known as the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC, is administered by the U.S. Department of Education.

The survey gathered data from a representative sample of U.S. adults. NSC’s analysis, conducted in collaboration with the American Institutes for Research, looked at combined 2012-14 data on US workers ages 16-64 who were employed at the time of the survey. (Learn more about AIR’s work and see other studies at the PIAAC Gateway.)

The PIAAC survey includes a cognitive assessment in English measuring the three domains of literacy, numeracy, and “problem-solving in technology-rich environments,” or PS-TRE.

Individuals described in NSC’s report as having “no” digital skills are those without PS-TRE scores; “limited” skills refers to workers with scores below PS-TRE Level 1; “proficient” refers to those who scored at Level 1, and “advanced” combines data from workers who scored at Level 2 or Level 3. 

Note: An additional round of U.S. PIAAC data collection was completed in 2017. While 2017 data is not reflected in this report due to the timing of its release to the public, it is largely consistent with earlier years. Learn more about the 2017 data here: https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/current_results.asp

Posted In: Work Based Learning
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