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Report: States Should Target Digital Skills Gaps as Economy Transforms

Jobs that require some college education will tend to demand digital literacy, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19. A report suggests that states can play a bigger role in meeting the growing need for digital skills.

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A new Benton Foundation report advises states to address digital skills training as part of regional economic development strategies in order to fill the middle-skill jobs of the future. 

The report, released today and written by Technology Policy Institute senior fellow John B. Horrigan, explains that the overwhelming majority of middle-skill jobs, which are positions that require some college education (such as a certificate or two-year degree), will involve digital skills. 

This fact is concerning because an estimated one-third of American workers, according to the National Skills Coalition, don’t have the skill to “learn a wide variety of today’s technologies and navigate continued changes in the future.” Meanwhile, the middle-skill job market shows no signs of slowing down. 

“[By] 2022, the economy is projected to demand 3.4 million more middle-skill workers than what the labor force can provide,” the report said. 

The more that technology advances in general, the more that middle-skill jobs will require digital literacy. The report also points to evidence that COVID-19 will reshape the economy. A working paper from the Becker Friedman Institute estimates that between 32 and 42 percent of “COVID-induced layoffs will be permanent.” New jobs in areas like online shopping and teleservices will most likely require digital literacy. 

“Typical examples of middle-skill jobs include clerical or administrative positions, sales, construction, repair/installation, and health care technicians,” the Benton report said. “This is not just about sales transactions using online apps or office work requiring knowledge of Google or Microsoft products. Food-safety training relies on virtual reality in some organizations, while in agribusinesses, food-packaging workers have to coordinate with robots.”

To prepare everyday Americans for these significant changes in the job market, the report asserts that states need to do more than target broadband access in underserved communities. 

“States generally emphasize broadband infrastructure in policy areas that include economic development, transportation, health care, and agriculture,” the report said. “However, emerging job-training programs discussed here do not seem to find prominent places at the table of regional or state strategy — at least not in a widespread way. Bridging that gap is a place to start to help improve the supply of people prepared for middle-skill jobs.”

The report mentions several different digital skills training programs that may serve as useful models for state strategists. Some of the highlights include:

  • The College of Southern Nevada and the Nevada State Library developed a 12-week virtual reality program that aims to “immerse trainees in the experience of being a kidney dialysis technician.”
  • Calbright, a California community college, and Western Governors University, located in Utah, focus on teaching digital skills to low-wage and rural adult workers, respectively.  
  • The Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore offers a “mobile job lab to reach into low-income neighborhoods.”
  • Google has created a IT certificate course called Grow With Google.
  • West Michigan Works! is a workforce development board initiative that “coordinates with regional planning organizations and employers to help tailor job training to the local economy’s needs.”
The report notes that it’s important for digital skills training programs to incorporate in-person learning components, as the digital divide may threaten opportunities for people who have no or substandard Internet service at home. 

“The challenge is that middle-skill job candidates have fewer technology tools than others, according to my analysis of American Community Survey data,” the report said. “For those fitting the educational profile for middle-skill jobs — a high school diploma or more schooling short of a bachelor’s degree — some 65.1 percent have wireline broadband internet subscriptions at home.”