Access to Digital Skills Building is America’s Moral Imperative

Almost 80% of jobs in the U.S. require a level of technical proficiency, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And of the skills that are required today, the World Economic Forum predicts that a third of those will change in just a few years. 

The global pandemic has brought the need for digital skills building into the forefront, highlighting the inequities in our communities. This invites a new level of political, social and civic engagement. To address these issues, Digi.City hosted a virtual discussion on July 10 featuring a panel of national experts who covered the continuum of digital skills building from basic literacy to preparing students for higher education to upskilling and reskilling working adults.  

“We believe that talent is hidden right in front of us in communities that are often overlooked – people who are incredibly smart and highly motivated… Given the right opportunity, (they) can change the trajectory of their future.” said Plinio Ayala, president and chief executive officer of Per Scholas. Over the past 25 years, Per Scholas has worked with hundreds of employers in 14 cities to build effective IT training models that allow working adults to gain the skills to be able to build IT careers.  

Panelist Matt Stephenson co-founded Code2College to address the access and opportunity gaps that minority and low-income students face in STEM undergraduate majors and careers.

“Most people conflate access with ability but these are two different things. The 76% of the students we serve are Black or LatinX. Fifty-three percent are female and 51% received free or reduced-price lunch. Thirty-six percent will be the first in their families to pursue a college degree. These students are outperforming their peers. So it’s not about a talent deficit; it’s about an opportunity deficit.” 

Technology can be intimidating, especially for those without experience in the digital world. Panelist Ana Aguirre spoke about how UnidosUS offers digital skills training through Latinos at Work. The program provides literacy and work readiness contextualized to real-world scenarios. For example, participants can learn computer skills while building their resume and navigating online job listings. UnidosUS is the largest civil rights organization for the Hispanic community with a network of more than 300 local partners. 

Understanding the landscape of the challenge is the first step towards potential solutions. Plinio Ayala directly and rightfully called for urgency to address systemic socio-economic inequities, specifically related to access to tech. 

“Let’s call this what it is. This is about racial injustice…. This pandemic clearly illuminated just how fragile our communities of color are…. The modest gains realized over the last ten years have been wiped out in three months. I don’t think I’m overstating this when I say if we don’t fix this issue of the digital divide it’s going to take decades for our communities to realize some of those gains back. This country needs to step up to this challenge and do something about it.” 

Justina Nixon-Saintil, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for Verizon is laser focused on Digital Inclusion. “Providing the connectivity and resources so that everyone can be successful in the digital economy has been a focus of our Community Impact programming for many years.”  One of the signature grants launched in 2014 and involves providing devices, teacher training and STEM curriculum to title one schools where 35% of students are low-income and do not have access to broadband. There are 253 schools in the program currently with a goal of  315 next year. About 81% of the students are Black and Latino and 86% qualify for free and reduced lunch. More than $400 million has been invested in the program.  

The pandemic has also underscored the need to not only provide greater equipment for students, but also skills training for teachers, who now need to conduct classes online.

Justina explained, “Many teachers have not been trained and so they don’t understand how to use technology effectively to engage students.”  The national footprint of a global corporate partner can be a major support in rolling out programs that are consistent state-to-state. 

The panel noted that the definition of the Digital Divide has changed over the years. It goes beyond providing hardware and software and extends to broadband access and training. A multi-layered, holistic approach is needed which requires thoughtful partnership between the public and private sectors. 

We have to invest in effective models in a much heavier way that allows them to scale and have greater impact and drive significant change in our communities. One-time interventions will not produce the systemic changes that are needed. But the challenge is that supporting students along a long-term trajectory for success requires abundant resources. More than 50,000 schools in the U.S. have high percentages of children from low-income families. 

As the world becomes increasingly digital, it is imperative that everyone has access to participate – regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or zip code. It is not just up to one sector or one organization to resolve these issues.  Corporations looking to support talent pipelines and build strong communities cannot address the entirety of the problem with philanthropic dollars alone. Government must work collaboratively with nonprofits and advocates as well as large employers to help disadvantaged communities build wealth. 

The first step is acknowledging the complexity. The second step requires action which can include: learning more about these organizations, sharing program results, increasing the number of communities served, inviting more corporate participation and advocating for digital skills building with elected officials and government leaders.

Justina ended the discussion on a positive note, stating that there is great hope in the midst of great uncertainty. “We find the opportunity with every challenge,” she said. And so it is up to everyone to forge towards solutions. The Digital Divide impacts every American in every community. It is not only our economic imperative, it is our moral imperative. And if we work together, across sectors, across barriers, we can support real solutions.