Ensuring nobody is left behind

Last year, the National Skills Coalition, in partnership with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, analyzed job postings throughout the country and found that 92% of positions require at least one digital skill, while “previous NSC research found one-third of workers don’t have the foundational digital skills necessary to enter and thrive in today’s jobs” (Closing the Digital Skill Divide, February 6, 2023). Recently, more than 450 people from 41 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico convened at NSC’s Skills Summit to learn about a wide range of workforce-related issues, including skills and training, racial equity, job quality and an inclusive economy. Digital equity was on the forefront of the discussions as states continue to work on their plans for implementing funding from the Digital Equity Act.

A variety of themes emerged from the conference speakers. The first is that engaging with employers is key to driving change and ensuring success. Employers can identify the occupational skills standards that can inform curriculum for apprenticeships and other training programs. These can come from department heads who know the skills needed today and can help identify the skills that will be needed in the future. That requires time and relationship-building because those people aren’t always obvious. As U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo pointed out, “if we don’t start with the employer, [job training] won’t work.”

While larger employers may have more resources to contribute, such as donated devices and funding support for nonprofit organizations offering digital skills programs and operating community technology centers, small businesses can also play a major role by participating in paid micro-internships and traditional internships to prime the pipeline. Because of the value these project-based opportunities offer small businesses, more funding is needed to ensure broader access to them, especially for young people of color who are often less able to participate in an unpaid internship, regardless of the skill-building, connections and experience it may bring.  

To create a welcoming, diverse workplace, panelists advised employers that they may need to adjust their management style and participate in implicit bias training. They also discussed how although diversity is important, we need to look at not just diversifying the pipeline but also disrupting the drivers of inequity and identifying the structural barriers, not just getting more people in roles. This can require a longer timeline, however. One way to get employers on board beyond diversity goals is to focus on the fact that developing more access to good jobs builds regional competitiveness. And while having a champion at a company is valuable, it is important that if the point of contact leaves that the relationship continues. 

Panelists also suggested that support for upskilling, such as high-quality mental healthcare, food security and housing, is also essential to ensure participants’ success. These need to be coupled with career navigation so people can identify and meet their career goals. In addition, Secretary Raimondo emphasized the importance of developing creative “earn and learn” opportunities so that people can support themselves while participating in training. “If you’re making $15/hour, you can’t leave to go get trained because who’s going to pay the rent? It’s a scary place to be a middle-aged person who doesn’t have digital skills and know you need them to support your family,” she said.

Training and job opportunities can seem impossible when faced with caring for an adult family member, however. Because of the major role the direct care sector plays in enabling caregivers to work, the Skills Summit devoted an entire panel discussion to helping attendees understand the challenges facing workers and employers. For direct care staff who have to navigate childcare and transportation challenges, training takes a backseat. One panelist suggested technology solutions are needed to work around these issues. This further amplifies the need for affordable, high-quality internet as well as digital skills, however, which was also a main topic of discussion.

AI also took center stage with Chike Aguh, senior advisor with the Project on Workforce at Harvard University, declaring this was a ”jump ball moment” where we can level the playing field and that we have the opportunity to “do a lot more with a lot more.” 

To ensure that happens, we need to upskill small business owners on AI to ensure they’re as knowledgeable as the students completing AI coursework. Aguh also stressed the importance of inclusivity in the design and deployment of AI. “Are the people building it and the people using it roughly the same? If not, you have a problem,” he said.

During digital equity panels, many touched on the challenges facing many of the “covered populations” identified in the Digital Equity Act. For instance, one panelist pointed out that one in six adults reads or writes below the 4th-grade level and that digital literacy is a broader component of reading literacy. For justice-involved individuals returning to society after incarceration, they can’t interact with the world without getting caught up. Additionally, Black youth are three times as likely as white youth to lack digital skills. 

While there is often a lot of conversation about the need to fill high-tech roles to keep the U.S. globally competitive, Secretary Raimondo provided the CHIPS and Science Act as one example of the major need to fill middle skills jobs, pointing out that 60% of positions in semiconductor chip factories spurred by the legislation only require either a certification, apprenticeship or some degree or credential beyond high school. From entry level to PhD, “there’s literally a job for everyone,” she said.

She also stressed the important role attendees play in closing the digital divide and increasing access to good jobs. “Your job is more important than ever. This work is easy to talk about and hard to do,” said Secretary Raimondo. “We can’t leave anyone behind.”

Further Reading

Empowering Older Adults: A Partner Spotlight on AARP’s SCSEP Program

In a world increasingly reliant on digital technologies, access to digital literacy and employment opportunities is crucial for people of all ages. Yet, older adults, often overlooked in discussions about technology, face unique challenges in navigating this digital landscape. Recognizing this disparity, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) has been actively working to bridge the digital divide, ensuring that older Americans have access to opportunities to earn new digital skills and valuable work experience.

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Digital Inclusion Fund Relaunches with Open Call for Applications

The KC Digital Inclusion Fund is a charitable fund led by KC Digital Drive and administered at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation with an Advisory Council. In 2024, the Fund will award up to $250,000 across three grant areas: 1) Devices, 2) I.T. Support, and 3) New Courses. For more information or to apply, visit kcdig.org.

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KC Reentry Organizations Offer Digital Inclusion Support to Returning Citizens

The following is a recap of a presentation by Jill Hanli, Journey to New Life Case Manager and Outreach Coordinator, Susie Roling, Journey to New Life Associate Director, Alexis Williams, 12th Street Heritage Director of Operations, and Tanesha Whitelaw, KU Center for Digital Inclusion Digital Navigator given to the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion […]

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