Workforce and the Digital Divide

Written by Bishara Addison, Senior Manager, Policy & Strategic Initiatives

I find it hard to find words these days. There are so many crucial conversations that need to be had. In the midst of two public health crises – one new, and one that has existed under the surface for some while very apparent for others – it’s hard to think about a world without racism and COVID-19. But as resources are deployed to these very real and urgent crises, challenges faced by low-income and underinvested communities pre-Coronavirus still exist and will persist unless we multi-task strategies for the near term and the future. There are many challenges I could list, but for now I’ll just address one.

As leaders and communities adapt to navigate a world with COVID-19, many have turned to virtual tools. Employers ask employees to work from home and operate remotely, restaurants and grocery stores offer online delivery options, classes are taught online, telehealth is a reality, and everyone ZOOMS. These options, unfortunately, are not available to all. To utilize telehealth or take classes online, people need digital access. This means a foundational community infrastructure that facilitates access to broadband; secondly, the individual must have the hardware to engage; and finally, the individual needs to know what to do with it once they have it.

Broadband is now a basic infrastructure essential to the well-being of all in our community. The pandemic has only highlighted what we don’t have and accelerated the need for building access to the emerging digital economy. Nationally, 34 million Americans lack access to broadband of at least 25megabits per second (downloads).[1] Households making $25,000 or less have an adoption rate for broadband of 47% (compared with those making more than $100k with an adoption rate of 92%). In looking at Cleveland, according to 2018 statistics from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Cleveland ranks 33rd in the nation when it comes to completely unconnected households (27.42%), and ranks 33rd when it comes to homes that do not even have a wire line (44%).[2]

From a workforce development perspective, closing this gap in digital access is paramount to ensuring Greater Cleveland residents can participate in an economy that is increasingly digital. In workforce development, job seekers use the internet for job searches and communication with potential employers. There are so many opportunities to take advantage of free training, but only if you have the infrastructure, hardware, and skills to use them. At Towards Employment, while unable to perform our traditional career readiness workshop with social distancing guidelines, we turned virtual and are using google classroom to engage past and new participants. Participation, however, requires certain tools to engage. And we know, and see, that this is a challenge.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Survey of Adult Skills, data shows 13% of currently employed American workers ages 16-64 have no digital skills, and an additional 18% have very limited skills.[3] And of course, digital access is not immune to racial disparities. Workers of color are over-represented among those with limited or no digital skills.

  • Black workers comprise 12% of overall workers, but represent 15% of the subset of workers who have no digital skills and 21% of those with limited skills.
  • Latino workers represent 14% of overall workers, but represent 35% of workers with no digital skills, and 20% of those with limited skills.[4]

Why does this matter for workforce in Cleveland? Two of our most thriving industries in NE Ohio are health care and manufacturing. Both industries are more likely to hire for middle-skill positions (positions that require more than a HS diploma but less than a 4 year degree). The challenge our region faces is that 82% of middle-skill jobs require digital skills. Digitally intensive middle-skill jobs also pay more with an overall 17% premium over non-digital roles according to a recent Burning Glass report.[5] People without digital skills are locked out of these jobs.

With so many issues worthy of attention right now, it’s hard to focus on one. Yet, if we truly desire a more inclusive economy for a Post-COVID world, the foundation for such an economy is digital access. We’ll still grapple with racial disparities, but digital access is a first step to invite everyone into the conversation to shape a new economy.

And there are things we can do now. One example is a project in Old Brooklyn where a free broadband service has been deployed to make available high broadband service to residents within a 4.5 mile area of the neighborhood, a project supported by local nonprofit, DigitalC. At the State level, legislation is moving in the Statehouse that would expand access to broadband by deploying funding that would help fund projects that provide broadband to residential areas within their boundaries that are without (HB 13). This legislation, however, does need amending to ensure resources are deployed to under-invested and economically distressed communities. Towards Employment will continue to engage around the issue of digital inclusion and support organizations like DigitalC who work to make this a reality.