Digital Skills and Job Training: Community-driven initiatives are leading the way in preparing Americans for today’s jobs

Benton Foundation

Monday, October 29, 2018

Digital Beat

Digital Skills and Job Training:

Community-driven initiatives are leading the way in preparing

Americans for today’s jobs

John Horrigan 

An excerpt from a new Benton publication by the same name

The American job market, by a lot of measures, seems very healthy. The unemployment rate is low and, though labor-force participation has been at historically-low levels, recent employment numbers indicate that more people are coming back to the job market. But there are some Americans who have not benefitted from the improving job picture. Even among those with jobs, wage growth – especially for those whose pay is middle-income or less – has been weak, while upper-income workers have fared better.

There are, however, well-paying job opportunities for those on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum for so-called middle-skill jobs. These are jobs that generally do not require a college degree and pay a living wage. Roughly half of all job openings in the United States fall into the middle-skill category and most (82%) of them require digital skills – and wages are better as a result. Unfortunately, many people who fit the middle-skill demographic also exhibit low levels of “digital readiness” – which means they have deficiencies in digital skills and lower home-broadband adoption rates. A logical solution to the mismatch in skills and job openings is better job training. There is good news and bad news on this front.

First the bad news: the federal system for job training, which provides funds to states to carry out job training services, has experienced a steep decline in funding since 2001 – by more than one-third in real terms. Coupled with questions about the effectiveness of job training programs, it is hard to be too optimistic that federal government job training programs will address changing labor markets any time soon.

The good news is that communities, largely outside the federal system for job training, are undertaking initiatives to provide digital skills training to prepare people for today’s workforce. Two important things signify these initiatives; they are:

  • Bottom-up, in that they originate at the local level and rely heavily on collaboration among community anchor institutions such as libraries or neighborhood non-profits.
  • Small in scale, which may help them gain the trust of their communities.

The foundational role of digital skills may surprise those who worry about equity in our society. Just a few years ago, those who pay attention to telecommunications and internet policy set their sights on the digital divide – that is, making sure those without online access can get it. There has been progress on this and there is more to be done. However, solving access (i.e., network availability) and adoption (i.e., affordable service plans and hardware for those in need) have proven to be necessary, but not sufficient, ingredients to addressing digital equity.

Rather, as people who work in community-based organizations, libraries, and other anchor institutions can attest, many lower-income Americans seek out programs to bolster their digital skills. They know the job they have or the one they want depend on these skills.

There is a final key element in community-driven, job-training programs that focus on digital skills. Many of them are follow-on initiatives to digital initiatives in cities and towns, whether that means development of citywide-broadband networks or programs to increase home-broadband adoption among low-income populations. This gives nascent job training programs solid roots as they seek to grow. It also means that each community will put its own stamp on them. As these programs develop in communities around the country, it will be important to assess them along the way so as to offer lessons to places which seek to emulate them.

John B. Horrigan is Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, with a focus on technology adoption, digital inclusion, and evaluating the outcomes and impacts of programs designed to promote communications technology adoption and use. Horrigan is also currently a consultant to the Urban Libraries Council. Additionally, he has served as an Associate Director for Research at the Pew Research Center, where he focused on libraries and their impact on communities, as well as technology adoption patterns and open government data.

Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.

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By John Horrigan.