As the workforce shifts towards digital landscapes, communities, particularly those in in rural settings and historically underserved urban areas, face challenges in providing residents with adequate access and tools needed to participate in the digital workforce. Affordability, low internet speeds, lack of broadband infrastructure, and low adoption rates are a few of the barriers urban and rural communities face. These challenges are referred to as the digital divide.
The digital divide is often described as the gap between individuals who have access to technology and those who do not. For the purposes of this piece, we will use the definition offered by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance:
The digital divide is the gap between those who have affordable access, skills, and support to effectively engage online and those who do not.
This broad definition presents key areas communities must address when working to close the digital divide. Moreover, digital access, another important term, will be defined as an individual’s access to tools and technologies to fully participate in digital society. When individuals lack digital access, they may not have proper broadband structures where they live to access the internet, may not have sufficient funds to afford digital tools (computers, laptops, monthly internet, etc.) Digital skills, commonly referred to as digital literacy, can be described as one’s ability to use technological tools and systems. Digital skills include word processing, data entry, information processing, email and chat, secure information processing, data science, digital business analysis and more.
A study published in May 2020 by the Nation Skills Coalition, The New Landscape of Digital Literacy, analyzed the impact of digital access and skills on the economic mobility of workers. The study found that 31 percent of surveyed workers, across all industries, lack digital skills. Lack of digital skills were disproportionally reflected among occupations such as plant and machine operators and assemblers (63%), skilled agricultural and fishery workers and elementary occupations (53%), and craft and related trades workers (48%). As society shifts toward digital banking, human resources management systems, retail and more, populations that experience difficulty gaining technological skills will likely struggle to adapt to the changing landscape. Interventions that create access to broadband and educate populations on how to use technology will be critical to ensure that individuals are able to participate in digital functions of society.
This digital shift includes the fields of education and skills training. The previously mentioned study provides critical insights about individuals who display higher levels of digital skills. Individuals with digitals skills tend to be higher earners, receive more on-the-job training, and participate in more seminars, workshops, distanced learning opportunities, private lessons and other continued learning opportunities. Pairing this information with data that shows individuals who continue education are higher earners, experience higher levels of employment, lower levels of poverty, one can infer that the digital divide has opportunity to expand.
Fortunately, local communities and state governments have ample tools at their disposal to combat the divide. The federal government has authorized nearly $65 billion to help communities build access to reliable high speed internet. Many of these programs target rural and historically underserved urban communities. Resources are available via the Department of Commerce, Federal Communications Commission, Department of Agriculture, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and Denali Commission (Alaska) websites.
These funding opportunities will need to be put into action to close the divide. Large companies have taken initiative to address obstacles that communities face. A recent article by Kevin McAllister discusses important lessons we can learn about closing the digital divide. The article also highlights several global programs spearheaded by non-governmental organizations including Cisco’s Country Digital Acceleration program and Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach initiative that illustrate the importance of for-profit involvement in closing digital gaps. These large initiatives are not the only solutions at our disposal. Local communities and agencies within them can move to close gaps.
A great example of where this is already being done is in Bath, Maine. Patten Free Library has partnered with the National Center for Digital Equity to offer digital literacy classes to local patrons who have not received previous training. Another program Let’s Get Digital, East Warren was created by the East Warren Development Corporation in partnership with Michigan Women Forward and Kanopi Social. This program is designed to help business owners, particularly women of color, manage their own websites, understand Google analytics, and develop the digital aspects of their businesses by participation in a nine-month digital literacy and marketing workshop. These two programs highlight instances of local nonprofits serving the digital needs of their communities.
At TPMA, we believe in creating customized, actionable solutions to create an actionable impact, particularly at the local level. The work being done by the aforementioned nonprofits aligns with our company’s expertise. If your community experiences gaps in digital access and literacy, our innovative approaches can be the remedy. To learn more about our work, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ben Helkowski, Consultant