As industries undergo rapid digitization, disparities in digital access are creating economic and social inequities. While bringing broadband connection to marginalized communities has been a significant step forward, governments will also need to focus on increasing access to digital skills training to really galvanize social and economic equity. Recently, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo stated that the federal government cannot solve this digital divide on its own.
According to a report by Coursera on labor market trends in the U.S., “the recession has nearly ended for high-wage workers, but job losses persist for low-wage workers.” Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. showed high rates of employment in retail and manufacturing – yet jobs in these industries are increasingly the most at-risk. Not only did the pandemic displace many workers in these industries, the simultaneous pressure to shift to automated processes also means that many of these jobs are not coming back. Meanwhile, the healthcare, software, and IT industries are – and will continue to be – “massive forces of growth” for the job market, with the software industry growing at twice the pace of overall employment in 2019. However, these growing industries continue to face talent shortages for high-paying technology jobs.
Officials, including Raimondo see a critical role for federal, state, and local governments to help match supply and demand in the labor force. In order to move towards full employment, governments will need to lead the way in making investments in bringing digital skills to people across all income and skill levels. This focus on inclusive growth closes the digital divide and prevents expanded wealth inequality.
As the pandemic brought waves of unemployment across the country, state governments in New York, Tennessee, and Minnesota showed innovative leadership by partnering with online learning providers to create free training programs for displaced retail and service industry workers. These reskilling programs were easy to access, could be completed in 4 to 5 months, and equipped workers with foundational digital skills that were in-demand in local job markets.
Online learning programs pave the way for filling jobs in rapidly-growing industries and safeguarding against both labor shortages and unemployment spikes in the future. Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) developed its online course catalog in conjunction with the state’s CareerForce resource, a platform that connects job seekers with local employers. As Minnesota anticipates an increase in openings for high-paying jobs in automation and AI, upskilling displaced workers is a key component to building economic prosperity for all citizens, especially those most affected by social and economic inequities.
There is long-term value in building strong ecosystems of learning to close the digital divide and promote overall economic sustainability and innovation. Companies with stronger technology skills have seen less disruption than companies with weaker technology skills, and digital acceleration is predicted to bring 149 million new digitally focused jobs in the next five years. Federal, state, and local agencies must forge strategic partnerships that strive for inclusive growth by bringing job-ready skills to workers facing inequity through displacement and skills gaps.