Employment and Jobs

Foundational Digital Skills: An Equity Imperative

January 7, 2020  • Alison Ascher Webber & Jaime S. Fall

This is the third in a series of blogs reflecting on innovations in upskilling in advance of UpSkill America’s fifth anniversary event. To learn more about the event and register, click here.

As a single parent who worked full-time as a teacher’s aide, Tamea Bishop was determined to improve her economic prospects by pursuing postsecondary education. Because of her busy work schedule and child care needs, it was hard for Tamea to find classes she could attend. Online learning seemed to be her best bet, but she didn’t own a computer and lacked some basic computer skills.

But Tamea was fortunate. Through her employer in Richmond, California she learned of a new college program designed specifically to support working adults. Tamea received a free laptop and co-working space, accessed basic digital training, and was paired with a personal success coach. And thanks to a tuition subsidy from her employer and a Pell Grant from the federal government, Tamea was able to enroll without paying anything out of pocket.

“It would have been difficult for me to just use an online program. I didn’t know how to make spreadsheets or even how to copy and paste. If I didn’t have a coach to teach me these things, I would have dropped out.”
— Tamea Bishop

Tamea’s story is all too familiar: Individuals with the ambition and potential to succeed in our increasingly digital economy are held back by an education and training infrastructure that wasn’t designed or built with the unique needs of adult learners in mind– particularly those with low levels of digital fluency.

That’s why more than 20 organizations have united to form Digital US, a national coalition of employers, educators, workforce development professionals, policymakers, and philanthropists partnering to ensure that all of us have the foundational digital skills needed to thrive in work and life by 2030. The coalition will transform interest in supporting digital skills into a movement to create an ecosystem that enables continuous digital learning and upskilling.

Over the last five years, headlines have featured threats from looming digital challenges, including automation, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence.

A 2019 survey showed more than 80% of executives are highly concerned about a digital skills gap. While increasing attention is being given to upskilling workers, and while we celebrate the progress in both awareness and action, we know millions of workers are still being left behind.

Employers tend to focus on big disruptions from emerging technologies, but the reality is that most jobs won’t be automated away. Rather, they will change at the margins, requiring nearly all individuals to continuously adapt to use increasingly digital tools. The Markle Foundation refers to a lack of focus on these jobs and workers as the Digital Blindspot.

According to a recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute, technology threatens just a small percentage of occupations with complete automation-driven obsolescence, but 60% of jobs could have a significant portion of their work activity automated with the application of existing technology, dramatically changing the work experience of most occupations. Currently, two out of three workers who struggle to use computers are required to use them on the job.

We are at a critical crossroads on our journey to build a resilient workforce and economic mobility for all Americans. Access remains a stubborn barrier to upskilling. Roughly 32 million Americans are unable to turn on a computer, and 20 million don’t have access to broadband internet.

And, the issue of access goes beyond the world of work. Technology is built into nearly every aspect of our daily lives, from online-only bill payment to unmanned grocery stores with self-checkout machines. In an increasingly high-tech world, gaps in digital literacy can exacerbate existing disparities, locking out millions of Americans from opportunity – and constraining the US economy.

To build the critical on ramps that are necessary for worker-learners to thrive, we need an ecosystem of players. Digital US aims to:

  • Drive Awareness: Educating employers, policymakers, and funders on the urgency – and equity imperative – of closing foundational digital skills gaps, and making this a national priority.
  • Build Digital Resilience: Aligning and scaling effective digital upskilling and inclusion practices, and innovating solutions to address current gaps.
  • Shape Policy: Engaging policymakers, funders, and employers to create an ecosystem of digital skills and learning for all of us.

UpSkill America is partnering with Digital US to:

  • Encourage employers to invest in digital skills development within their workforces as well as in the communities in which they operate.
  • Provide best practices and resources to employers upskilling their workforces in digital skills.
  • Inform employers, policymakers, and funders on advancing equity within digital skills development and other upskilling opportunities.

The need for digital skills for all of US is both urgent and important. Changing the status quo will require the collective efforts of leaders in business, government, and communities to invest in programs and policies that promote equity.

Join Digital US or sign up for more information at JoinDigitalUS.org.

Digital literacy and other upskilling issues will be the focus of an event on January 21, 2020 at the Aspen Institute as UpSkill America celebrates its five-year anniversary. Learn more.


Share

People who want to succeed in our increasingly digital economy are held back by an education and training ecosystem that wasn’t built with the needs of adult learners in mind. We need to fix this.

Digital US is forging a movement to enable continuous digital learning and #upskilling, so that that all of us have the foundational digital skills needed to thrive in work and life.

Employers often focus on big disruptions from new technologies. But most jobs won’t be automated away. They will change at the margins, requiring people to #upskill to use increasingly digital tools.

We are at a crossroads on our journey to create economic mobility for all Americans. We need an ecosystem focused on building the on-ramps for worker-learners to thrive.

Access remains a stubborn barrier to #upskilling. In an increasingly high-tech world, gaps in digital literacy can exacerbate disparities, locking out millions from opportunity and constraining the economy.

#Upskilling for our increasingly digital economy is both urgent and important. Changing the status quo will require a collective effort to invest in programs and policies that promote equity.


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UpSkill America is an employer-led movement that promotes training and advancement practices to help workers progress in their careers and move into better-paying jobs. UpSkill America is an initiative of the Economic Opportunities Program.

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