Digital fluency for a resilient economy

Prioritizing digital literacy and problem-solving skills training to assist workers, businesses and communities responding to the Covid-19 crisis

By: Leticia Lewis, Director at Software.org: the BSA Foundation and Molly Bashay, State Policy Analyst at National Skills Coalition

[This piece is one in a series addressing the overlapping policy response necessary to respond to both Covid-19 and its economic impact and to developing technological change in the workplace. For framing of the recommendations overall, see our initial blog here. This blog is also a preview of a policy paper National Skills Coalition will release in full in May 2020.]

Photo by Frank Romero on Unsplash

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has starkly illuminated fissures in our public systems, including the postsecondary and workforce systems. A common vein throughout is the impact of job loss and fundamental changes to the way Americans work.

Job loss stemming from the pandemic is unprecedented — most recent numbers point to over 22 million unemployed with more anticipated as the crisis continues. Many of these laid-off workers are scrambling to identify how they can regroup and re-engage in a labor market that has shifted overnight, and one in which the traditional solution of “going back to school” for additional training has been complicated by a rapid shift to online-only learning. Many training providers are ill-equipped to match demand for remote learning, and many are not ready at all to shift to online or technology-enabled programs. Even more critically, the rapid shift to online or technology-enabled learning means that workers with no or few digital skills — already at a disadvantage in the labor market — may not be able to effectively participate in training and earn the credentials they need to reconnect to work.

Similarly, those workers still employed are facing significant new demands to build technology-related skills — across all industries and sectors — as digital tools enabling remote work are the single thread tethering them to continued employment. State and federal investment in quality, accelerated training programs can stem the tide of worker layoffs and insulate critical sectors from further Covid-related shockwaves.

Clearly, not everyone has the capacity to weather this disruption successfully by adopting digital stopgaps and patches. An equitable response to the developing needs of workers and businesses weathering this crisis requires broadening availability of digital skills and training opportunities; expanding individual access to essential tools like digital devices and functional broadband internet; and a public commitment to digitalizing American systems and life

DIGITAL LITERACY: To succeed in this rapidly changing environment spurred by the coronavirus outbreak, workers and learners need broad-based digital problem-solving skills and effective, contextualized learning opportunities for individuals of all skill levels that allow them to work successfully in a range of digital tools and environments.

Digital literacy, or the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, is an increasingly critical skill in a changing economy.

Yet a staggering 48 million American workers lack digital literacy and problem-solving skills, and even more lack access to the high-quality education and training opportunities which would empower them to increase their skills to meet technological shifts. That’s according to a National Skills Coalition analysis of data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Survey of Adult Skills, also known as the PIAAC. NSC’s full analysis will be released in May 2020.

Workers with no digital skills exist in all age groups but are more prevalent among those ages 45 to 54. Most workers with no digital skills have a high school diploma or less and are clustered in the lower-earnings quintiles. They typically are white or Latinx, are more likely to be male, and have limited English skills compared to U.S. workers overall.

Digital skill demands exist across all industries and most occupations, and Covid-19 is increasing the costs associated with those digital skill gaps for both workers and employers. For example, right now one third (33 percent) of healthcare and social workers have no or limited digital skills meaning they are less able to deploy emerging remote and digital health tools that respond to the current crisis and could help flatten the curve. The current epidemic highlights the need to invest in critical upskilling opportunities — not only in healthcare, but for workers in all industries supporting the response to the pandemic, including manufacturing.

Many manufacturers have temporarily shuttered operations in response to the current crisis. But for those manufacturers deemed essential and still in operation, digital skill gaps and rolling out digital upskilling initiatives present another hurdle for small and mid-sized employers tasked with swiftly developing, producing and shipping critical parts and supplies.

Digital inequities exist in all layers of American society, creating a drag on U.S. productivity and worker economic security. In response, National Skills Coalition and Software.org: the BSA Foundation, in collaboration with a broad-base of coalition partners representing adult educators, direct service organizations, small and mid-sized businesses and industry partners, crafted policy solutions to meet the challenges arising from a digitalizing workforce and society.

Problem: Traditional education models may not equip workers with skills they need to succeed in the digital economy.

  • Solution: Policymakers and stakeholders should support public-private partnerships, streamline eligibility and identify incentives to advance short-term and nontraditional training and education programs to respond to jobseeker and employer needs for rapid upskilling in the face of the crisis. Community colleges, technical schools, apprenticeships and other training programs offer the education and skills necessary to thrive in 21st century careers. Scaling these types of programs could prompt employers to shift to a nimbler skills or competency-based hiring system and increase learner access to digital and technology skills training. This approach would also help employers fill open positions more efficiently, benefiting the entire U.S. economy.

Problem: Not all businesses and training providers have the guidance they need to effectively upskill workers with the digital skills they need to succeed in a changing economy.

  • Solution: Congress should define and embed occupational digital literacy standards in workforce and education policy like WIOA Title I and II, backed by funding to support quality digital skills training.

Problem: States need support to develop and implement programs that embed digital literacy skills as a part of broader occupational skills training, integrated education and training, and other proven accelerated learning strategies.

  • Solution: The federal government should create a new national grant program to administer Digital Literacy Upskilling grants to expand access to high quality digital skills instruction that meets industry and worker needs, modeled after the grants put forward in the Digital Equity Act.

Problem: Small and mid-sized businesses have limited in-house capacity to train workers for in-demand careers while training providers’ program availability and curriculum may not respond to local business need.

  • Solution: State and federal stakeholders should invest in creating a network of “21st Century Industry Partnerships” between businesses, education providers, the public workforce system and community organizations to help essential businesses find skilled workers for in-demand jobs.

Problem: Small and mid-sized employers need support to rapidly upskill their new and incumbent workforces to respond to the crisis.

  • Solution: Policymakers should help incentivize 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 to allow employers to provide essential upskilling opportunities to incumbent workers.

Even before the current crisis, the need for workers with digital skills was on the rise. Research from the Urban Institute affirms the growing urgency of foundational digital skills for all workers, including those in frontline roles such as home health aide and janitors, with the number of jobs requiring digital skills predicted to increase 12 percent by 2024. Policy priorities which address digital skill needs and disruptions emerging from the future of work are even more urgent in light of the dramatic Covid-related shifts affecting workers, businesses and communities.

DIGITAL INCLUSION: Covid-19 draws stark lines between the haves and the have nots in terms of access, opportunity and capacity for individuals and communities.

Just weeks ago, digital learning and work tools were emerging best practices for the digitally fluent. Today they are all but essential for workers at any skill level.

Adapting to life under social distancing through the use of digital tools for remote work, distance learning and personal communications has created and deepened inequities in digital access. First and foremost, broadband internet access is essential to comply with work-from-home mandates and to participate in digital skills instruction, especially for those learners without mobile access or without robust mobile data plans.

The digital divide between people who have broadband internet access and those who have no access or have cell phone-only access is a huge barrier to accessing education and training opportunities and re-entering the workforce, especially now as states roll out free and bite-sized training options to help workers rapidly upskill. Currently, over 20 million U.S. households (18 percent) have no internet access while another nine million (8 percent) have mobile-only access.

Multiple state and federal bills address internet access issues, particularly from a rural broadband access lens, but a more complete scope is necessary to address the nuance within accessibility and connectivity. Workers and communities need legislation which authorizes federal funding to expand and extend access to high speed broadband, accessibility tools and tools training, and digital literacy instruction to meet the challenges Covid-19 poses. Recent developments on Capitol Hill indicate that infrastructure, and specifically expanding broadband access, is top-of-mind for federal policymakers advancing the fourth coronavirus-relief stimulus package.

Finally, to ensure an equitable recovery and learn from the complexities of this crisis, state and federal governments must align to make digital resources accessible and also ensure digital access into public systems and service delivery. While federal legislators consider methods to extend broadband access to millions of American households via the next stimulus package, state policymakers can also act. States have the capacity to provide resources and technical assistance for job training programs, adult education programs and community colleges that serve workers and learners. Existing state investments in adult education vary widely, but all states should consider increasing investments in programs serving adult learners, including professional development to help adult educators themselves build the digital fluency needed to equip learners with necessary skills.

DIGITAL EQUITY: Individuals and communities need state and federal policymakers to commit to creating digitally equitable systems in response to the crisis and beyond.

Inequitable digital skills and access already threatened the viability of the newly-online 2020 U.S. Census, even before Covid-19 emerged to compound these challenges. For workers of color, immigrants and workers with limited formal education, digital skill gaps present immediate threats to their ability to weather digital disruptions in the workplace and make them significantly less likely to reconnect to work once separated. Failing to act now to break digital barriers will continue to leave whole communities on the sidelines of essential public forums.

More than ever, American life depends on having skilled, well-prepared workers at every level of our economy — from doctors, nurses and scientists to people working the night shift stocking grocery store shelves. These people have always been the very backbone of America’s economy, though it has never been clearer that a person’s ability to contribute doesn’t depend on a college degree. As workers and businesses do their part to keep essential services flowing, policymakers must return the favor by advancing and investing in the policy mechanisms that will enable those essential workers to learn and engage with digital tools needed to thrive in our complex and fast-changing economy.

National Skills Coalition

Every worker. Every industry. A strong economy.

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