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How to Acquire Industry-Specific Skills

Virtually every worker today needs digital skills – but how those skills differ across various industries is less well understood. With support from the Cognizant U.S. Foundation, NSC’s latest publication goes beyond foundational digital skills to ask: How can workers best acquire industry-specific digital skills? And how can public policy help this process?

Over the past four months, National Skills Coalition staff interviewed business, education, and workforce leaders across the United States to understand how these issues are playing out on the ground. NSC’s new brief, Boosting Digital Literacy in the Workplace: How rapid prototyping is helping businesses to upskill workers and what policymakers can do to help, provides an actionable summary of their responses.

Among the new findings:

  • A broad base of digital skills is a highly valued asset to business leaders
  • Small businesses face greater challenges in addressing digital literacy gaps compared to their larger counterparts
  • Dedicated public investments and integrated training models are crucial to the effectiveness of digital upskilling programs
  • Investments in industry sector partnerships can help local businesses meet the demand for digital skills
  • Lack of access to broadband internet and digital devices makes training difficult and sometimes impossible for workers and small businesses

This brief builds on previous NSC research describing the extent of digital skill gaps among US workers, finding that nearly one-third of US workers (31 percent, or more than 48 million people) had few or no digital skills, and that between 38 and 43 percent of those workers nevertheless were employed in jobs that required moderate or complex computer usage. This research found that workers spent considerable time and energy covering or compensating for their skill gaps, and that this served as an invisible drag on productivity for workers and businesses. NSC’s prior research also explored variations in digital skill gaps by industry, implications for workers of color, and potential areas for federal action.

New findings: Many businesses value workers who have a broad, flexible base of digital skills

NSC’s new research found that the ability to confidently download, install, navigate, and use novel software programs or mobile apps is highly valued across industries ranging from construction to logistics to healthcare.

Numerous leaders emphasized that the fast pace of change in industry-specific technologies means that it is often much more important for workers to be capable of adapting to a variety of tools than it is for them to memorize one specific tool.

Some large businesses are successfully tackling digital literacy, but smaller businesses face barriers

While large companies can afford to launch elaborate in-house training programs, small and mid-sized enterprises often rely on partnerships with community colleges and other training providers to create their talent pipelines.

But a lack of public investment that is specifically dedicated to digital skill-building makes it hard for smaller employers to use the workforce development programs they would otherwise typically rely on.

Bright spots need dedicated investment; integrated training is best

A relative handful of business and workforce leaders are leading the way on occupational digital skills. These leaders use a “rapid prototyping” process to develop upskilling models. This approach allows for constant experimentation, evaluation, and adjustment as they develop and implement training programs that are closely aligned with employers’ skill needs.

But these innovative leaders represent bright spots that are relatively isolated from each other, and suffer from a lack of dedicated public investment.

In addition, acquiring occupational digital literacy skills is best done in the context of technical skills training for that occupation, rather than as a stand-alone program. Contextualized or integrated models are especially effective in building occupational digital literacy. Again, a lack of dedicated investment is preventing more of these effective models from being developed and replicated.

Proven strategies such as sector partnerships can meet the demand for digital skills

One example comes from the South Bend-Elkhart Regional Partnership and its Labs for Industry Futures and Transformation (LIFT) Network. This project tackles digital skill needs in the advanced manufacturing industry by working closely with local employers to identify skill demands and competencies needed for occupations such as Programmable Logic Controller Technicians. Then, the partnership and its educational partners design upskilling programs that meet businesses’ talent needs.

Unfortunately, limited public investment in sector partnerships means that the powerful model at work in South Bend is not available in many geographic regions or for many industries.

Lack of broadband and digital devices is hindering progress and economic vitality

Numerous leaders identified a lack of broadband internet access as a major barrier preventing digital skill-building. They reported that broadband access and affordability problems had significant economic consequences for businesses that spilled over to affect workers as well.

In particular, lack of broadband made it difficult or impossible for workers to participate in video- or data-heavy online training, prevented instructional staff from being able to teach online, and created problems for employees trying to apply their new technological skills at the worksite. These threshold issues thus undermined efforts to build workers’ digital skills, and jeopardized companies’ efforts to use cost-saving technology on the job.

Some leaders also pointed to difficulties in finding funding for up-to-date digital devices and proprietary technology commonly used by employers. They noted that without modern computer technology, instructional staff struggled to help adult students familiarize themselves with the digital tools they would be called upon to use in the workforce.

Policymakers should take immediate action

Both federal and state policymakers have a role to play in tackling occupational digital literacy issues. NSC recommends that policymakers:

  • Invest in industry sector partnerships that can collaborate with community colleges and other training providers to bring a business voice to the talent development process.
  • Modernize federal student financial aid to recognize the reality of how digital skills are acquired.
  • Invest in high-quality professional development and technical assistance to aid workforce and education providers in designing demand-driven digital skill-building programs.
  • Expand digital inclusion investments to tackle all three “legs of the stool” – broadband internet access, digital device access, and digital skills.

For more on each of these recommendations, check out the full brief.

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