Boosting Digital Literacy in the Workplace

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock – Published December 2020 in National Skills CoalitionSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

From interviews with business, education and workforce leaders across the U.S., the National Skills Coalition recommends federal investments in industry sector partnerships, integrated training models, and broadband internet/digital device infrastructure to effectively train workers and meet the digital skill needs of employers throughout the country. 

Digital Skills Gap
Over the past several years, only “a handful of workforce and education leaders” have reshaped workforce programs to be adaptable and closely aligned with regional business needs. Specifically, digital literacy programs addressing foundational skills – “a baseline skillset that workers need to have regardless of industry” – and occupational skills – technical competencies taught through specific occupational hands-on training – are in high-demand from employers nationally. Previous research from the National Skills Coalition (NSC) found that 31 percent of U.S. workers had few or no digital skills. Furthermore, NSC reported that “between 38 and 43 percent of those workers nevertheless were employed in jobs that required moderate or complex computer usage,” causing impediments in productivity for employers. 

Flexible Industry-Specific Digital Skills
From interviews with business, educational and workforce leaders, NSC found that investment in occupational digital literacy “should focus more on opportunities for workers to build industry-specific but transferrable skills, and focus less on single, proprietary systems.” Workers who are capable of acclimating to a variety of tools are more productive than workers who only have competency in the usage of one tool. In industries that require remote work or have workers located in a range of sites, the flexibility of employees to self-learn is especially critical for business’ productivity. 

Examples of Large-Scale Digital Literacy Programs:

  • KeyBank’s Future-Ready Workforce:  An initiative able to serve 4,000 active employees, individuals can voluntarily participate in a range of digital skills training, including robotics automation to data analytics. Offered in-house via a learning management system, employees can earn badges that identify knowledge of specific curricula. 
  • Pricewaterhouse Coopers’ (PwC) New World, New Skills: A $3 billion program offered to 276,000 PwC workers incorporates gamification by “using trivia and other online games as recruitment, onboarding, and educational tools for its workforce.”
  • L’Oreal’s Marketing Skills in a Digital Economy Assessment:  In partnership with General Assembly, L’Oreal created a Certified Marketer Level 1 assessment opportunity for its workforce to demonstrate knowledge of “essential marketing skills in the digital economy.”  Since 2016, L’Oreal “has continued to build its in-house digital expertise, equipping it to rapidly develop and implement new digital skill-building modules for the company’s occupationally diverse workforce.”

State of “In-House” Training Programs Offered by Small and Mid-Sized Companies
While job candidates with skill gaps are frequently hired by small and mid-sized businesses, such companies typically lack resources to develop in-house training programs on the scale or quality of programs offered by large enterprises. Often, for digital training, smaller companies rely on community college-partnered programs that lack public investment. Current federal legislation like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Higher Education Act, does little to fund shorter-term, technology-focused programs. 

Sector Partnerships and Meeting Demand for Digital Skills
Based on prior NSC research, sector partnerships effectively prepare workers for jobs that require skills training and help businesses recruit employees. In industries like manufacturing that are constantly modernizing equipment and requiring new competencies from employees, sector partnerships allow for industry feed-back to maintain and develop programs offered by training providers. For example, the South Bend-Elkhart Regional Partnership and its Lab for Industry Futures and Information Network (LIFT), “works closely with local employers to identify skill demands and competencies needed for occupations such as Programmable Logic Controller Technicians, Computer Numeric Control (CNC) Operators, and Robotic Technicians.” Further, LIFT then designs programs that fill businesses’ skill gaps, pipelining skilled technicians to small and mid-sized employers offering in-demand positions. 

Contextualized and Integrated Program Models for Occupational Digital Literacy
Contextualized models use specific occupational materials and hands-on, technical training to prepare individuals for what they will eventually experience on a jobsite. Integrated models combine technical training related to a specific occupation with “instruction in foundational skills (literacy, numeracy, spoken English, or digital skills).” An example of an integrated program model is a medical assistant course where workers learn digital skills concurrently with medical-care training. 

Workforce leaders find contextualized and integrated program models efficient in building digital literacy because both motivate workers and give them confidence in completing tasks related to their occupation of choice. Drawing from adult learning theory that states, “adults are most motivated to learn when the learning is connected to their daily lives,” the models represent a “best practice.” Also, “the models lend themselves to the use of realia, or real-life documents and tools used in the workplace,” giving workers measurable experience “in real situations they are likely to encounter.”

Lack Internet and Digital Device Access
Many of the leaders interviewed by NSC acknowledged that a lack of broadband internet access posed problems. In addition, community college CTE leaders said they lacked funding for “up-to-date digital devices and proprietary technology commonly used by employers.” 

Competency vs. Time-Based Models
Although competency-based models have more value in the labor market, “the overwhelming majority of public investment in postsecondary education and workforce development is instead focused on the time-based model.” Competency-based models like contextualized and integrated programs are different from time-based models in that awarded credentials are tied more directly to skill/knowledge assessment processes. Time-based models use assessments but are more reliant on requiring students to reach a threshold of “seat-time,” or hours in the classroom to complete a credential. 

NSC makes four recommendations for policymakers: 1) Invest in industry sector partnerships that promote collaboration between community colleges/training providers and regional business. 2) Federal policymakers should expand the Pell Grant to include funding for more “high quality short-term programs that lead to employment and articulate to further educational pathways.” 3) Invest in technical training infrastructure that allows educational and workforce development providers to develop “occupational digital literacy that is embedded in overall technical or industry-specific training.” 4) Invest in broadband and digital device infrastructure to increase postsecondary access for all. 

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