Preparing All Workers and Learners to Participate in the New Digital Economy

June 4, 2020

Even before the first case of Covid-19, the world was more digital than it had ever been. New devices connected the world, provided palm-sized access to all recorded knowledge, and changed the way every industry operates. However, the wave of digitization has also exacerbated gaps between digital haves and have-nots. Workers needed devices to cash their checks and students needed internet access to do their homework. Some restaurants and stores had stopped accepting cash, with more and more preferring for patrons to pay using their phones. Avenues to participate in society without a connected device, computer, or broadband were shrinking.

Then, coronavirus abruptly shut down the U.S. economy, and those avenues were effectively shut.

The pandemic accelerated the ongoing digital transition faster than anyone could have predicted. Education, training, and hiring systems were forced to go virtual almost overnight, and at the same time, 30 million Americans lost their jobs. As a result, even though it has never been more important to create efficient and equitable pathways to upskill and hire workers, it has never been harder to do so without the help of technology.

 

That presents a serious risk. The way we rebound out of this downturn can define the economic prospects of entire generations. If we fail to provide quality pathways back into the workforce for those without digital access or skills, we will ensure that this crisis only exacerbates existing inequities.

 

Households making less than $30,000 a year are about 14% less likely to own a smartphone, and about 40% less likely to have a computer and broadband than households making between $30,000 and $100,000. The service sector has been disproportionately devastated by this crisis- a situation made worse when 73% of service sector workers lack skills to solve problems in digital environments. Those numbers represent millions of Americans who cannot even find and apply for jobs at a time when libraries, job centers, and social service organizations are closed, much less compete for the coming wave of digitally-focused jobs.

 

Closing the digital divide is not just an equity imperative; it’s also an economic imperative. Businesses will need a strong workforce to lift them out of this dip. If the economy re-opens only to confront the same digital skills shortages as we saw before, it will set businesses up for a sluggish recovery. An analysis from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that businesses that invest in local digital infrastructure can reap high rewards in more efficient business operations.

 

We have to build an infrastructure for inclusive job searching in an era where career fairs and bulletin boards are inaccessible. We have to figure out how to upskill the workforce for a swell of high-tech jobs while campuses are closed. Initiatives that began long before anyone had heard the term COVID-19, including those that use skills, rather than other proxies like degrees, to connect people to opportunities have an important role to play. Yet even these initiatives often rely on a complex landscape of technology solutions to connect competencies and job opportunities at scale. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation is supporting the development of this ecosystem through its Talent Pipeline Management (TPM), Job Data Exchange (JDX), and T3 Innovation Network initiatives. These initiatives promote a shared way to describe skills obtained and skills sought, as employers, education and training providers, technology companies, and others work to create an infrastructure that allows for a more transparent and equitable talent marketplace. 

Ensuring that all Americans have the digital skills and confidence to navigate an increasingly online world will require concerted efforts by all of us. Helping the tens of millions of unemployed Americans find work-- and helping employers find the talent they need-- will require more Americans to have basic digital literacy skills. Job centers, libraries, and other government agencies can certainly help connect people to resources, but employers have a role to play in ensuring people have the skills they need to both find and keep a job. But given that the digital needs of employers are increasing, every investment we make in digital equity now will pay off when a stronger, savvier, diverse workforce gets started rebuilding the economy later.

That’s why forward leaning employers and leading nonprofits have joined together to form Digital US, a national coalition to drive awareness on the equity imperative to invest in digital skills and support collective impact efforts to improve access to digital skills training. In the new report, Building A Digital Resilient Workforce: Creating On-Ramps to Opportunity, Digital US presents findings from a national landscape scan of efforts to build digital skills, exposes persistent gaps and the inequities that these gaps exacerbate, and makes recommendations - including what employers can do - to help build a more equitable digital future.