Employment and Jobs

Digital Skills, Training, and Equity: Five Questions for Jeffrey Connor-Naylor, Director of Business Leaders United

June 6, 2022  • Jeffrey Connor-Naylor, UpSkill America & Jaime S. Fall

Employers interested in learning more about building the digital skills of their workforce and communities should check out the Employer Network Advancing Digital Skills and Equity, a partnership of Digital US and UpSkill America.

Photo of Jeffrey Connor-Naylor

Jeffrey Connor-Naylor, Director, Business Leaders United

Federal funding for digital equity may be coming to your state, and business leaders can help make sure some of it is carved out for skills training that helps workers use technology in the workplace.

1. What is Business Leaders United, and what are you hearing from small business owners about the digital transformation underway in our economy?

Business Leaders United (BLU) is an initiative of the nonpartisan, nonprofit National Skills Coalition. We are a free, private business network promoting inclusive, high-quality skills training policies that help build the skilled workforce that employers need to grow and thrive.

Businesses in every industry are telling us that the COVID-19 pandemic really sped up their digital transformation. Changes that they had planned to make over five years or more got compressed into a matter of months or even weeks. But there are a lot of growing pains.

For example, let’s say you’re a third-party logistics company at a big port, and you used to process your cargo manifests and delivery orders on paper.  Because of the pandemic, you’ve quickly adopted an electronic delivery order system. But you have no dedicated IT staff, and your employees are trying to figure out a new system on the fly.

Or say you’re a transportation company. Your drivers used to get paper paychecks. Now you’ve shifted to a mobile app to handle payroll and HR benefits. But some of your drivers are struggling with the app. So now your managers are spending tons of time every week troubleshooting their problems and trying to make sure people get paid.

Or you’re a small manufacturer. You just invested in new equipment, but the trainer was only there for a week. Now you have this million-dollar machine sitting idle half the time because only a few of your workers have the training they need to keep it in service.

These kinds of challenges are costing businesses time and money. They help illustrate the urgency of modernizing our public policies so that small and medium-sized businesses can more easily collaborate with education and workforce partners to upskill workers.

These challenges are also weighing disproportionately on frontline workers – especially workers of color – who often face greater structural barriers in building digital skills.

It’s been a bumpy couple of years for everyone, and it’s held back business growth.

2. How has federal workforce policy responded? Or has it responded?

BLU leaders laid out our vision for digital skills in federal skills training policy all the way back in December 2020. But up until last fall, federal policy was lagging behind reality. Digital literacy was barely mentioned in federal workforce development legislation.

When the pandemic hit, some federal agencies issued quick guidance to clarify how various funding could be used to support broadband access, purchase or loan digital devices, or support digital skill-building. But most of it was focused on foundational digital skills – the basics – rather than industry-specific skills.

Then in November, Congress passed infrastructure legislation including the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act – a first-of-its-kind investment. There’s still much more to be done, but this is a major step forward.

3. What will the new Digital Equity Act mean for businesses?

This summer, states will begin putting together their Digital Equity Plans to determine how they will spend millions of dollars over the next five years. This is a golden opportunity for businesses to encourage their states to set aside funds for industry-specific digital skills training.

Here’s my advice:

  • Talk to your governor’s office. Find out which agency they’ve designated to oversee your state’s Digital Equity Planning process, and then get in touch with them. You want to be at the table for listening sessions or whatever events they’re holding as part of the planning process.
  • There will be a 30-day public comment period for people to offer feedback on the draft plan, but you want to be at the table earlier than that. You want to be helping to shape the plan.
  • You don’t have to be a sophisticated policy expert. Tell your company’s or industry’s story. Show what the need for digital skills looks like at your company or industry. Make sure that your state’s plan – and the spending that will flow from it – responds to the real needs of companies like yours.

While businesses are talking to their state leaders, we’ll be continuing to press on the federal front. Through our parent organization, National Skills Coalition, we submitted comments to the federal government urging them to explicitly affirm that businesses can be directly eligible for Digital Equity Act grants if they are part of an industry or sector partnership.

4. How can people stay up-to-date on the latest developments in digital skills policy?

Sign up for the Business Leaders United virtual network. We send occasional, timely updates on skills training policy issues, including digital skills.

And sign on to our Digital Equity @ Work principles. These were put together by our parent organization, National Skills Coalition, with plenty of input from the business community.

5. What else can businesses do to share their experiences with decisionmakers?

Over and over again, we see that people are moved to action by real-life, tangible examples. Being able to talk about the particular ways that digital skills issues are showing up in the workplace can help spark “Aha!” moments for policymakers, journalists, and others.

It’s easy to hear an abstract term like “digital skills” and assume that it just means knowing basic office software. But as I said at the top of this interview, digital skills show up in all kinds of industries, for all types of workers. Business Leaders United regularly connects business leaders to opportunities to share their stories and bring about change.

If you have a digital skills example or story to share, please reach out to me directly. I’d love to hear from you: jeffreycn@businessleadersunited.org


#DigitalSkills, Training, and Equity: Five Questions for Jeffrey Connor-Naylor, Director of Business Leaders United @BLU4WP @SkillsCoalition. Interview by @upskillamerica.

Federal funding for digital equity can help workers build skills to use technology in the workplace. Read more in this @upskillamerica interview with Jeffrey Connor-Naylor @BLU4WP @SkillsCoalition.

The pandemic sped up digital transformation in every industry. But change has been hard, slow, and unequal. Let’s make it easier for businesses, education providers, and workforce partners to upskill workers.

In summer 2022, states will begin putting together Digital Equity Plans to determine how to spend millions of dollars over five years. This is an important opportunity to invest in #digitalskills training.

“It’s easy to hear an abstract term like ‘digital skills’ and assume that it just means knowing basic office software. But… digital skills show up in all kinds of industries, for all types of workers.” -Jeffrey Connor-Naylor @BLU4WP via @upskillamerica.

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