Digital Equity Imperative

Increasingly, technology is built into nearly every aspect of our daily lives: online-only bill payment, tablets to check-in at the doctor’s office, emails and apps to support children’s learning, and self-check or online delivery at grocery stores.

Digital Fault Lines Expand as Work and Learning Shift Online

April 2020

With video chat enabling virtual work and students and teachers learning (many, for the first time) to collaborate digitally, it is easy to focus on the ways technology is enabling a degree of normalcy in a time that is anything but normal.

As COVID-19 response measures forced schools, libraries, and community centers to close and workplaces to shift off-site, changes in our analog habits have cut off a digital lifeline for millions of U.S. workers and families.  

Sadly, the digital fault lines that have emerged reflect more than gaps in access. An estimated 32 million Americans struggle to use a computer, and half of all Americans say they are not confident using technology to learn.  For these individuals, the shift to a fully-online job market or online-only education and training is exacerbating the gaps that already exist between economic haves and have nots.  

The Digital US coalition is a collective impact effort driven by 25 leading nonprofit and employer partners, launched earlier this year to draw attention to the ways in which millions of Americans are being left behind–and the social and economic imperative to ensure they are not locked out of education and employment opportunities. Together, we’re working to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity and support needed to develop essential technology skills and digital resilience — the agility, skills, and confidence to be an empowered user of new technologies, and adapt to changing digital skill demands.    

Our report highlights the experiences of individuals like Tamea, a single mom who didn’t own a computer or know how to use one when she first enrolled in an online associate’s degree program, or Celso, a job-seeker who was continually told during his job search to use online resources, but didn’t know how to access them.  Both needed the support of a coach to gain the skills necessary to achieve their goals. But their ability to access this support, in a time of social distancing, is at risk.

Technology has the potential to be a powerful force for good in this uncertain time. But it can also exacerbate inequalities. Recovering from this pandemic will require us to reflect on what worked during this time–and what didn’t. It’s also important to distinguish between critically needed bandaids to provide short-term access to technology and digital skills supports and the ecosystem changes we must catalyze to build a more equitable economy and learning ecosystem for digital skills. Preparing our workforce with the technology skills to better handle a similar disruption in the future will serve us all well– and also holds the potential to create more robust talent pipelines for employers, and stronger pathways to prosperity for millions of Americans. Join Us!

With digital fluency now a key 21st century skill, inequitable access to digital upskilling has deep implications for the economy and employers.

US executives are highly concerned about a digital skills gap.

workers who struggle to use computers are using them on the job anyway.

Even middle skill workers show significant gaps in “digital readiness”.

Workers with higher digital literacy skills perform better and earn higher wages.

In our quest to save money and increase efficiency, we risk creating systems that marginalize individuals that lack the connectivity – and skills – to navigate an increasingly digital world.

The challenge is especially acute in the world of work. Because while headlines often focus on the risk of automation for truck drivers or the heightened demand for coders and computer scientists, technology is making an impact on all of our jobs.

According to a recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute, technology threatens just 5% of occupations with complete automation-driven obsolescence, but far more jobs (60%) could have nearly a third of their work activity automated, dramatically changing the work experience of most occupations.

Currently 73% of service sector workers lack skills to solve problems in digital environments, but very few receive training at work or can access opportunities outside of work to improve their digital skills.

Current efforts to upskill employees through online courses may leave out those who need it most: workers without access to devices or internet at home, or who are uncomfortable navigating the world of online learning. And even the on-ramps to employment can be cut off, as the process job-seekers use to discover and apply for jobs moves online.

In our increasingly tech-infused world, digital inequity exacerbates existing disparities and challenges reskilling and recovery efforts.

Lack of access to technology and foundational digital skills training locks many people out of opportunities with considerable costs to them and our wider society.

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.

Digital US is working to ensure that all Americans have foundational digital skills and resilience to thrive in work and life. We will drive awareness, develop digital skills and resilience, and design an equitable ecosystem for digital upskilling that works for all of US.