New NSC Analysis Finds Significant Digital Skills Gaps for Workers Across Industries, With Workers of Color Most Likely to Have Limited or No Digital Skills

By Ayobami Olugbemiga, April 21, 2020

Washington, D.C. — National Skills Coalition today released new fact sheets illustrating American workers’ digital skill gaps across five major industry sectors – manufacturing, health and social work, hospitality, retail, and construction – and what policymakers and business leaders can do to address these gaps.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for workers in all industries to have strong digital skills. However, approximately 1 in 3 American workers has limited or no digital skills and there are significant variations among the five industry sectors that NSC analyzed:

  • Half (50 percent) of construction, transportation and storage sector workers have limited or no digital skills. Yet these workers have seen rapid increases in the digital demands of their jobs in recent years, from construction workers who now use drones to collect surveying data on building sites to bus drivers who are required to complete online safety training modules.
  • More than one-third (37 percent) of workers in retail, wholesale, and auto repair have limited or no digital skills. Digital skill demands in these sectors include cosmetic company employees completing online learning modules to boost their digital marketing expertise, and auto technicians using computerized diagnostic tools to tackle repair jobs.
  • One-third (36 percent) of hospitality workers have limited or no digital skills. These sectors include hotels and restaurants, as well as dry cleaning and laundry, hairdressing, pet care, and valet parking services, among others. Digital skills needed in these industries include parking attendants who must use handheld computers to log vehicle incidents for insurance purposes, and hotel clerks who are helping guests install customized apps that allow them to use mobile keys.
  • More than one in three manufacturing workers (35 percent) have limited or no digital skills. These skill gaps are especially problematic in the modern environments of advanced and precision manufacturing. Workers must be able to use tools such as 3D printers on the shop floor, monitor and interpret data from sensors throughout a manufacturing facility, and even use “wearable tech” to receive in-the-moment training through virtual reality.
  • One-third (33 percent) of workers in the health and social work sector have limited or no digital skills. As the pandemic has shown, these skills are of critical importance in providing telehealth services, recording patient data to share with fellow providers in disparate locations, and monitoring the well-being of elders, rural patients, and others who may be isolated.

“The wide-ranging impact of digital skill gaps across industries makes it clear that policy solutions must be multi-sectoral,” said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, Senior Fellow at National Skills Coalition. “This isn’t an issue that can be cordoned off into a single industry sector or cluster. The data illustrates that workers who struggle in one industry because they lack key digital skills can’t simply jump to a new industry where such skills are unnecessary.”

The variations between sectors – both numerically, in terms of percentage of workers affected; and substantively, in terms of the specific causes and consequences of their skill gaps – point to the need for solutions that are responsive to individual sectors’ particular contexts.

“The digital skills needed by grocery store workers using a customized app to select items for a customer order and respond to that customer are different from those needed by a greenhouse worker using data from sensors to make adjustments as part of precision agriculture,” said Bergson-Shilcock. “Policymakers should prioritize digital skill building strategies that incorporate employer input in their design and use contextualized learning models that help workers see the real-life implications of their new digital skills and apply them during the learning process.”

NSC’s analysis also shows that workers of color are over-represented among those with digital skill gaps, in part due to longstanding racial and ethnic disparities in access to education and training, financial resources, and career-path jobs.

Black workers comprise 12 percent of all workers but represent 15 percent of those with no digital skills and 21 percent of those with limited digital skills.

Latinx workers are 14 percent of all workers, but 35 percent of workers with no digital skills and 20 percent of those with limited skills. Meanwhile, 33 percent of all immigrant workers have no digital skills and 29 percent have limited skills.

Asian American and Pacific Islander workers present a more mixed picture. These workers represent 5 percent of all workers, 4 percent of workers with no digital skills, and 7 percent of those with limited skills. Data on Native Americans and multi-racial individuals, however, is unavailable due to low sample size.

White workers, by contrast, are less likely to lack digital skills. White workers represent 67 percent of all workers, but only 44 percent of those with no digital skills and 50 percent of those with limited digital skills.

“Decades of intentional public policies created the structural inequities in our country, and that’s why public policy must be an integral part of the solution,” said Bergson-Shilcock. “Federal and state policymakers can act by investing in upskilling for workers and ensuring that workers of color benefit equitably from those investments. This requires that outcome data be disaggregated by race and ethnicity so that policymakers and advocates can identify where there are springboards or bottlenecks in workforce and education systems that are supporting or hindering racial equity in digital skill-building.”

Methodology: The data in this analysis comes from the 2012 and 2014 combined data by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Survey of Adult Skills, also known as the PIAAC. It represents US workers ages 16-64 who were employed across all industries at the time of the survey.

Workers who are classified as having “no” digital skills are those who failed to meet one or more of three baseline criteria: (1) prior computer use, (2) willingness to take the computer-based PIAAC assessment conducted in US by National Center for Education Statistics, and (3) ability to complete four out of six basic computer tasks, such as using a mouse or highlighting text on screen.

“Limited” digital skills, on the other hand, refers to workers who can complete digital tasks with a generic interface and just a few simple steps. For example, sorting emails into different folders.

Download each of the five industry-specific fact sheets here: Manufacturing; Health and social work; Hospitality; Retail; Construction, as well as the digital literacy skill gaps faced by workers of color.

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