New Report Shows How Businesses are Addressing Occupational Digital Literacy

By Ayobami Olugbemiga, December 15, 2020
A new report from National Skills Coalition and Cognizant U.S. Foundation sheds light on how policymakers can usher in a more equitable era of digital skills training for working adults

Washington, D.C. — National Skills Coalition (NSC), in partnership with the Cognizant U.S. Foundation, today released a new report – Boosting Digital Literacy in the Workplace – that examines how businesses are addressing digital upskilling for workers and what policymakers can do to help.

The research documents a consensus among business leaders who overwhelmingly agree that policymakers should invest in industry partnerships, expand Pell Grants for quality short-term training programs, invest in high-quality technical assistance to help education providers design digital skills training programs, and increase investments in broadband internet and device access.

“There’s a big difference between foundational digital literacy—which is a baseline skill set that workers need to have regardless of industry—and occupational digital literacy, which is about specific technology-related skills that are needed for a particular job or industry,” said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, Senior Fellow at NSC and author of the report. “The challenge is how do we determine the kinds of occupational digital literacy skills that workers need to get back into the labor market or to keep their jobs and grow in their careers? And how can public policy help in that process?”

To answer those questions, NSC interviewed more than 25 business leaders, workforce and education practitioners, and public officials from 12 states. NSC found that while some companies focus on hiring workers with specific digital credentials, a larger number are more focused on hiring workers who are comfortable with a broad range of digital technologies. The ability to confidently download, install, navigate, and use novel software programs or mobile apps is highly valued across industries ranging from construction to logistics to agriculture to healthcare.

The research showed that many of the employers leading the way in occupational digital literacy are large companies with enough resources to launch their own in-house training programs. Small and mid-sized businesses often rely on partnerships with community colleges and other training providers to create their talent pipelines. For example, the South Bend-Elkhart Regional Partnership and its Labs for Industry Futures and Transformation (LIFT) Network is working with Indiana employers to identify skill demands and competencies needed for manufacturing occupations such as programmable logic controller technicians, computer numeric control operators and robotics technicians. A key partner in LIFT is Ivy Tech Community College.

“The problem is that the lack of dedicated public investment for digital skills training means that many states and localities can’t easily replicate the success of the South Bend partnership,” said Bergson-Shilcock. “The primary federal investments in education and workforce development have restrictions that make it harder for small businesses to capitalize on those policies to support digital skill-building.”

For example, the $3 billion federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act only briefly mentions digital literacy as an “allowable activity” and does little to encourage the incorporation of digital skill-building as part of its adult education and job training programs. The Higher Education Act provides $30 billion in Pell Grants each year, but that funding can’t be used for shorter-term programs, which leaves out many high-quality technology-focused programs.

“Policymakers play an important role in ensuring working adults have the opportunity to build the digital literacy necessary to succeed in the workforce,” said Kristen Titus, Executive Director of the Cognizant U.S. Foundation. “We are proud to support this research that illustrates the need for a more collaborative and creative approach to remove barriers to career mobility and pave the way for a more inclusive economic recovery.”

Download full report: Boosting Digital Literacy in the Workplace