Bridging the digital divide goes beyond infrastructure
Over 40 million Americans lack broadband access, including more than 22% in rural areas and 27% on tribal lands. During the pandemic, there were countless stories about how the lack of internet service hampered families’ ability to cope. And the consequences of disconnected citizens persist today.
The federal government is taking steps to bridge the digital divide and provide all Americans with dependable internet access. The American Rescue Plan offers more than $25 billion for high-speed internet infrastructure and adoption, $65 billion for access, and $73 billion in grants to help individuals and families cover the monthly cost of internet service. And the Digital Equity Act provides $2.75 billion in grants for states, territories, and tribal governments to implement digital equity projects.
Unfortunately, ensuring internet access and affordability is only half the challenge of closing the digital divide. The other half is providing users with the skills they need to take advantage of new opportunities.
Digital literacy plays a key role
Although technology is pervasive in today’s world, 60% of Americans cannot answer basic digital literacy questions. “Digital literacy” is much more than being able to use smartphones or social media. Even young Americans born in the digital age are not immune to digital literacy issues. Digital literacy means:
- Having the skills to live, learn, and work in a society where jobs require knowledge of and comfort with computers
- Having the digital familiarity to access information and services
- Being prepared to protect against online risks, such as fraud, identity theft, and misinformation.
Simply having a job is not always enough to provide for one’s family, and employers’ expectations for entry-level workers are increasing. A new report from the National Skills Coalition found that 92% of jobs require digital skills. The report also found that strong demand for digital skills exists in every industry and occupation — including entry-level and frontline positions. Unfortunately, this is disproportionately affecting workers of color, low-income individuals, and rural residents because of historical underinvestment and structural inequities.
Those lacking digital literacy are consequently disqualified from gainful employment and other opportunities. While the US unemployment rate is just 3.5%, underemployment — people unwillingly working in low-skill and low-paying jobs because they cannot get full-time jobs that use their skills — is almost twice as high at 6.6%.
Those underemployed with low-wage jobs face the most significant obstacles to upskilling due to cost, inflexible work hours, limited free time, and employers less likely to invest in learning opportunities. This lack of opportunity perpetuates the cycle of poverty, as individuals cannot gain the skills needed to move into higher paying jobs.
How governments are delivering digital assistance
The good news is that there are ways to change the trajectory — and government agencies, together with technology partners, can play a pivotal role. States are pioneering ways to deliver digital assistance. For instance, the State of Hawaii’s public library system has deployed an online platform called Skill Finder. With more than 1,500 online courses in 17 categories, it provides accessible, practical courses to help residents upskill or reskill to secure a job, advance in their career, or build their own business. Skill Finder is free and available to all residents, easily accessible, and emphasizes short-term credentialing, micro-learning, flexibility, and self-pacing to assist workers with limited time.
“About 17% of our population doesn’t have the basic skills for using technology,” says Stacey Aldrich, state librarian for the Hawaii Public Library System. “We’d like to make sure everybody has the basic skills to interact, and that means online government resources, knowing how a website works, having an email address, and knowing how to upload a document.”
A program like Skill Finder has enormous potential to benefit individuals, families, employers, and the government by generating a positive economic impact. It can help close equity gaps among traditionally underserved populations, including low-income individuals, people of color, rural residents, and older adults. For individuals, increased digital skills translate to better employment opportunities, improved access to resources, greater agency, and better health outcomes. For employers, workers with stronger digital skills produce a larger pool of qualified applicants — with the added benefit of those applicants understanding important corporate priorities such as cybersecurity.
These kinds of digital literacy programs can help agencies achieve their most important mission — promoting the well-being and stability of individuals, families, and communities. Fortunately, the funding is available for agencies to proactively close the gap on the digital divide and support their obligation to help residents improve outcomes. Health and human service organizations — with their unique mission — have an unparalleled opportunity to blaze new paths in the pursuit of equity for all.
For more information on Skill Finder and how the Hawaii State Public Library System built a bridge to digital literacy, click here. To learn more about the technologies that built Skill Finder, read more about Adobe Commerce and Adobe Analytics.
After joining Adobe’s public sector team in 2016, Megan Atchley-Lazalier served as a founding member of Adobe’s health and human services (HHS) practice. As the current director of HHS at Adobe, Megan helps agencies adapt to an ever-changing digital landscape, improve engagement with their clients, and effectively use data to connect digital initiatives to outcomes. She brings her experience across public policy, community organizing, and health advocacy to help HHS agencies modernize while keeping client outcomes the center of focus.