Digital skills can be the difference between a job seeker finding new employment, or having fewer options.
National Skills Coalition (NSC) advocates for more inclusive practices that can ensure workforces include people from all backgrounds. According to NSC research, half of Black workers lack “vital digital skills,” as do more than half of Latinx workers. But what constitutes digital skills can be difficult to determine, said NSC Senior Fellow Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, a University of Pennsylvania grad who previously worked as VP of policy and evaluation at immigrant-serving nonprofit Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians.
Often, there’s a mismatch of what employers think of as constituting such skills. For instance, in what Bergson-Shilcock called fragmented knowledge, a significant contingent of millennials and Gen Z were highly proficient in using the now-defunct video creation app Vine. However, those same individuals often struggled to execute tech skills more commonly regarded in the workplace, such as building a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.
“The kids who took Vine and ran with it were mostly African American teenagers,” she told Technical.ly. “It was created for anybody but it was mostly young Black teens and young adults. They had all this technical expertise, but if you put them in front of a computer and said swap rows for columns in Excel, [they couldn’t]. But it shows up as not having digital skills.”
Bridging the gap between the existing digital skills specific communities possess with those sought by many employers is important for the growth and sustainability of a local economy already damaged by the pandemic, Bergson-Shilcock said. She offered four possible solutions to bridge the gap between the digital skills people may currently possess and the formal ones employers value the most.
1. New legislation can force employers to use more equitable hiring systems.
While there are laws against discrimination of job candidates, hiring systems exhibiting their creators’ cognitive biases are not yet regulated.
Some employers use computer systems to track how long job candidates take to complete online applications — and they might decide to not consider applicants who they deem to take too long to finish, Bergson-Shilcock said. Or an artificial intelligence-driven assessment system may take note of white male job candidates’ resumes and place them as the standard of what candidates’ resumes should look like, putting anyone whose resume doesn’t reflect that identity at a disadvantage.
“Building digital systems to make things fair for people are equally important,” she said. “We also have to say [that] government and businesses have to build fair systems so that we make sure we don’t have digital redlining.”
2. Working with community leaders and organizations can build trust faster.
Investing in local institutions that have already built trust with neighbors in need of digital skills training can go a long way in establishing new trust in those offering that training.
“People really respond when someone they know in their community and trust gives them information on skills training,” she said. “If I parachute in from Penn State and go to Southwest Philly, a lot of people would have a lot of questions [about me]. But if I say I work at the Southwest Community Development Corporation and my grandma is [a local resident], that’s a different conversation.”
3. Digital navigators can support a community’s digital access needs.
Bergson-Shilcock gave an example for comparison: In the same way health workers personally visit members of the community to help them manage conditions such as diabetes, digital navigators could help communities manage their own tech needs.
Organizations such as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance are working to make digital navigators more common in communities lacking digital support. The City of Philadelphia, too, funded the hiring of navigators based in North, West and South Philly last year thanks to its Digital Literacy Alliance grants. Via voice and text helplines, the aim of those roles is to help residents better access and use technology and the internet, from sharing info on low-cost internet options to advising on device setup.
4. Policymakers should support digital literacy education like they do other educational initiatives.
“Whatever they care about, without digital skills, we won’t be able to get there,” she said of policymakers’ priorities. “[They could] invest in digital skills like they would reading and math. We have to think of it as fundamental.”
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.