Bridge the digital divide with technology and training to fill the U.S. skills gap

Digital divides reflect and exacerbate existing racial, gender and class disparities. With the combined power of federal funding, state implementation and corporate investments, we can correct those inequities and enable more of us to thrive in work and life.

Currently, there’s an unnecessary drag on our economic competitiveness: the 11.5 million employment gap, resulting in nearly two unfilled jobs for every unemployed person in the U.S. The good news is major corporations and state leaders are mobilizing to equip millions of underemployed adults with the digital skills to prepare for advancement. 

The National Governors Association has released a roadmap for states to take advantage of the imminent influx of $2.75 billion in federal funding from the Digital Equity Act. At the same time, tested action plans from a coalition of 25 corporations and associations show ways to close the digital skills deficit that has stubbornly challenged hiring and talent retention.

We have within our grasp an historic opportunity to close one of the biggest, and most invisible, workplace inequities by teaching these capabilities to the nearly one in three U.S. workers ages 16-64 who have few or none of them.

The shortage of workers has been widening for more than a decade, affecting traditional industries such as manufacturing and STEM fields, and contributing to the U.S. falling to 29th of 100 countries across business, technology and data science domains.  

This fundamentally affects one’s prospects for advancement since digital skills are critical to higher wages. For every 10 percent increase in the Information Communications Technology task intensity, the average U.S. worker’s salary increases 4 percent.

The “digital divide” straddles a wide range of equity barriers including individuals with limited technological access due to financial insecurity or a remote location, adults with interrupted education including immigrants or refugees with language challenges and other hardships, and in-person workers lacking on-the-job digital training.  

To meet this range of needs, states are readying to apply for grants offered through the Digital Equity Act, which is part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. To support them in optimizing this funding, the NGA offers data-driven strategies and measurements in “Using Data To Advance Digital Skills: A State Playbook,” in partnership with World Education Inc., the National Skills Coalition, the NGA Workforce Innovation Network and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

On the corporate front, members of Digital US, the coalition launched in 2020 by the EdTech Center at World Education, have worked with World Education Inc. and the Aspen Institute’s Upskill America program to bring leading employers together and develop a step by step guide for employers to achieve a robust pipeline of digitally skilled workers and trainers. 

Specifically, it is aimed at building a culture of digital resilience or sustainability by equipping employees to problem-solve, update skills and navigate digital transformations. This kind of employer-supported environment can reap significant rewards. Two examples of Digital US partners show how they can advance equity and better the lives of their people. 

McDonald’s invested heavily in mobile instruction and gamification to engage employees and lay pathways for advancement.  Through mobile learning, people who might otherwise be constrained by home needs like childcare could train online to become a general manager. The company used technology not only to enable remote learning but also different learning styles, when and how the employee is most comfortable acquiring it. Overall, the program engaged frontline employees and led to more than 369,000 completions in the U.S. with an average net promoter score of 97 percent.

Another example is Tyson Foods, which sought to engage its 90 percent frontline and 60 percent immigrant workers. The company’s Upward Academy combines digital literacy with other practical skills and training, such as English as a second language, high school equivalency, financial literacy and U.S. citizenship. 

This makes the training easily accessible and technologically enabled, with classes offered online or in the plant immediately before and after workers’ shifts, with digital literacy labs at their factories and a device loaning program for employees to take tablets home. Employees could advance their personal goals of succeeding at work and supporting their children in online learning or banking.  It’s no accident Tyson’s core values include diversity and inclusion and a respect for family.