How Policymakers Can Solve The Digital Literacy Crisis

How Policymakers Can Solve The Digital Literacy Crisis
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Here’s a staggering statistic: Nearly one in three workers, or roughly 48 million Americans, have only a few digital skills — or none at all. But even more surprising, 43% of those with few skills and 38% with none have jobs that require moderate to complex computer usage.

Familiarity with technology is part of a baseline set of skills, known as foundational digital literacy, that workers need to acquire, regardless of industry. But across the country, employers from a range of industries say workers need opportunities to build occupational digital literacy, the specific technical skills to succeed in a particular job or industry.

Boosting Digital Literacy in the Workplace,” a new report from National Skills Coalition and Cognizant U.S. Foundation, found that hiring managers struggle to find workers with the right digital literacy skills, and current employees are seeking new investments in their own digital literacy to keep pace with changing industry trends.

Given the rapidly digitizing nature of work, America needs to create more opportunities for more workers to be comfortable with a broad range of technologies; to confidently download, install and navigate software programs or apps they’ve never used; or quickly adapt to a wide variety of tools.

Unfortunately, America lacks a national plan to respond to this structural shift in our economy. Without a plan, our nation faces a future of lower productivity, increased job turnover and decreased revenue — leading to serious consequences for small and mid-sized businesses already operating on thin margins. Without a plan, our country will continue to prevent millions of workers — particularly women and workers of color who have been most impacted by the economic crisis — from adapting to structural changes in the labor market.

Larger companies are better prepared to weather this digital literacy mismatch, since they can afford in-house training departments. But workers in need of digital skills are more likely to be employed by small and mid-size businesses, which often rely on publicly funded community colleges or local training organizations that may not have the technology or equipment that students need or lack the capacity to scale effective programs to reach more workers and local companies.

If our economy has any chance to rebound, small and mid-sized businesses need a public partner that can unleash their productivity and innovation. And workers in need of digital skills need a full-scale commitment from our government to ensure they are empowered to help drive our recovery.

Thankfully, policymakers can take immediate actions to increase occupational digital literacy. Here are four of them:

Invest in industry-sector partnerships.

Community colleges and other organizations can’t provide targeted training if they don’t know what skills local employers need. And because skills vary depending on the industry, the best partnerships are those that focus on specific sectors — from aviation and manufacturing to construction and robotics.

In Indiana, the South Bend-Elkhart Regional Partnership’s Labs for Industry Futures and Transformation (LIFT) Network helps workers develop occupational digital literacy in the advanced manufacturing industry by working closely with local employers. As a result, LIFT has provided skills and competencies for specific jobs like robotics technicians and computer numeric control operators.

Federal, state and local governments need to create more partnerships like the LIFT Network that give businesses more of a voice to ensure that skills-building programs prepare workers for existing jobs. Congress should expand investments in community college-industry partnerships — at a scale equal to or greater than the investments under the prior, successful Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Program.

Modernize financial aid by offering assistance for digital training.

Financial aid programs haven’t caught up with the high-tech world people enter when they graduate from college or complete vocational training. That’s why Congress must expand Pell Grants to create opportunities for workers who face barriers to their postsecondary education or training. The Higher Education Act authorizes $30 billion a year for Pell Grants but doesn’t allow it to be spent on proven short-term programs sought out by both workers and industry — eliminating many high-quality technical skills training programs from the mix. Additionally, states should also offer financial aid for competency-based programs, ideally those that are specific to industries in their regions.

Invest in high-quality professional development and technical assistance programs.

Workplace technologies are advancing rapidly — so rapidly, in fact, that it takes constant coordination between training providers and employers to ensure that students learn the right skills on the right equipment for the specific jobs employers need.

Policymakers can help by funding community colleges and vocational training programs at levels that allow them to invest in the professional development and programmatic infrastructure needed to collaborate with employers in developing digital literacy that is embedded in industry-specific training.

Increase access to broadband internet services.

According to those interviewed for this report, a lack of broadband access is a major obstacle to occupational digital literacy. Workers in some rural communities can’t participate in video or data-heavy training programs because they don’t have access to high-speed internet services.

One person said the lack of Wi-Fi at construction sites costs her business time and money, since workers can’t communicate change orders on the spot. Another reported that spotty internet access in his community prevented workers from attending online instructional classes on how to use high-tech agricultural equipment like combine harvesters. 

Federal broadband legislation has clearly not produced results on the scope and scale needed to meet the needs of a tech-driven economy. It’s time to act. Federal investments in education and workforce development need to become nimbler, and policymakers must double down on training programs that address occupational digital literacy so that workers and businesses can thrive in a post-COVID recovery.

We can’t train our way out of this recession, but training must be part of a national strategy to help workers and small and mid-sized employers respond to the structural shifts in the labor market.

Andy Van Kleunen is CEO of National Skills Coalition.

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