Digital Skills in Pandemic Times: How State Policymakers Can Help Workers and Businesses Adapt in a Changing Economy

By Melissa Johnson, Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, December 02, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated with vivid clarity how important it is for people to have digital literacy skills. From the workplace to the classroom and beyond, being able to use digital tools effectively is fundamental to success. For American businesses, the pandemic has accelerated a technological transformation that was underway even before the crisis struck. In many industries digital skills are now entry-level competencies for new hires and incumbent workers alike. Workers in positions ranging from frontline jobs to white-collar roles are being asked to quickly adapt to new tools and technologies.

To succeed in this rapidly changing environment, workers need broad-based digital problem-solving skills that equip them to learn a wide variety of today’s technologies and navigate continued changes in the future. But at least 48 million U.S. workers lack these foundational digital skills, and even more lack access to the high-quality training which would empower them to increase their skills to meet future technological shifts. Many of these same individuals also lack high-speed internet access and up-to-date digital devices — often referred to as the other two legs of the digital inclusion stool — which can further hamper their efforts to build digital skills.

While digital skill gaps exist in 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. Historically, public policy decisions have played a key role in forming skill gaps, including those that are racially inequitable. Therefore, public policies must now be an integral part of the solution.

As the US continues to navigate the economic turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic and recession, it is imperative that policymakers invest in an inclusive economic recovery. Key principles for this recovery should include: Investing first in those workers and businesses who have been hurt the most; eliminating structural racism in skills policies; and ensuring that workers have opportunities for sustainable careers rather than just a job. In addition, National Skills Coalition (NSC) has identified “Digital access and learning for all working people at home and on the job,” as one of eight top policy goals for an inclusive recovery.

To this end, NSC and its network of state workforce and education policy advocates have laid out a set of 10 immediately actionable recommendations that can be implemented by state policymakers seeking to improve digital skills. As detailed below, these recommendations are divided between: 1)Those that are revenue-neutral and can be accomplished via the executive branch (governor’s office, state agencies); and 2) those that require legislative action and additional investment.