NGA Workforce Innovation Network state grantees partner with employers to bridge the digital divide and adapt to the digital transformation of work
By Sophia Yager
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a definitive transition to the digital future of work, advancing 10 years of planned technological change in the workplace in less than one year. Yet nearly one in three workers in the United States have few or no digital skills, and at least 38 percent of those workers are employed in jobs that require moderate or advanced computer usage.
At the NGA Summer 2022 Workforce Symposium, panelists Nina Pande, executive director of Skills for Rhode Island’s Future, Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, and Nakeisha Ricks-Pettyjohn, senior fellow at the National Skills Coalition, came together to discuss lessons learned in state planning to advance digital skills. Engaging stakeholders in the development of strategies and policies to address digital skills gaps emerged as a top priority to ensure plans are aligned with the needs of workers, employers, and service providers. As many states face challenges in accessing quantitative and qualitative data on digital skills attainment and current and future skills demands, a robust stakeholder engagement apparatus can help to fill in those gaps and inform investments in digital skills training.
As the panelists described, the digital skills gap also creates talent and growth issues for businesses of all sizes—from large companies looking to grow and invest in the United States, to small and mid-size companies that employ the greatest share of workers with few or no digital skills. Consequently, employers are critical partners in identifying the digital skills demand and collaborating on solutions as states develop strategies to advance digital skills. To help states develop innovative solutions to equip workers and employers for this digital transformation, the National Governors Association’s Workforce Innovation Network (NGA WIN) launched its second phase in November 2021 with the addition of six new state grantees focused on increasing the digital skills needed to fully participate in training, education, and work.
Recent federal Digital Equity Act (DEA) investments provide states with a historic infusion of resources and a mandate to advance digital skills and, as the panelists discussed, this legislation offers states a timely opportunity to collaborate with stakeholders across the public and private sector. To prepare employers to engage with state policymakers in maximizing the impact of the DEA, NGA WIN and UpSkill America at the Aspen Institute released in July 2022. The guide offers three key strategies with guiding questions for employers to contribute to DEA planning and implementation, as well as strategies for state policymakers to support and collaborate with employers in exploring these questions:
- Study Your Skill Needs: Employers can define their company’s current and future digital skills needs by assessing their employees’ skills gaps and barriers to developing those necessary skills, evaluating existing strategies, partners, and programs for digital upskilling, and defining what DEA investments would most benefit their company and employees. State policymakers can assist employers in defining their skills needs by setting clear definitions for digital skills, developing a data collection and engagement methodology to gather quantitative and qualitative input directly from employers, and leveraging existing groups or forums for engaging business leaders including state and local workforce boards or industry councils.
- Tell Your Story: Employers can communicate their identified digital skills needs to diverse set of policymakers and stakeholders and educate them about the high-quality jobs in their industry that require those skills. They can also join regional sector partnerships to inform and participate in digital skills training programs and connect their company’s digital skills story to the state’s vision for economic growth and digital equity. State policymakers can use employer feedback and data to quantify digital skills gaps and barriers to digital literacy, leverage the Governor’s office to highlight employers’ needs and coordinate the interagency response, and partner with employers on new training solutions.
- Sustain Your Engagement: Employers can commit to ongoing partnership by serving on a DEA advisory group, connecting regularly with policymakers about the implementation of DEA, and providing feedback on their company’s evolving digital skills needs and success stories. State policymakers can build feedback loops with employers to inform digital skills training goals and strategies, engaging employers as advocates and co-designers of long-term funding mechanisms for successful strategies and programs, and appointing employers with knowledge and experience with digital literacy and skills development to serve on state and local workforce boards, career technical education (CTE) advisory committees, and other groups.
Engaging the private sector in state efforts to close digital literacy and skills gaps is just one critical component of a comprehensive approach to addressing the digital transformation of work. NGA WIN will soon release a framework for Governors and state policymakers to develop state plans to advance digital skills for equitable economic participation, based on lessons learned and case studies from the six NGA WIN state grantees. The publication will highlight key activities in state planning processes, including analyses of the state digital skills landscape through data collection, asset mapping, and stakeholder engagement. It will also detail how these planning activities inform state action plans, including strategies and policies that address access and equity, partner alignment, data collection, training opportunities, digital navigation, and resource allocation. The publication will also feature opportunities for aligning state plans with federal programs such as the DEA and the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD) program, in-depth profiles of the six grantee states’ innovations, and a framework for creating state plans to advance digital skills.
These bi-annual convenings are hosted by staff of NGA’s Workforce Development & Economic Policy program as part of its Workforce Development Technical Assistance Program, and convene two affiliates of the NGA Center for Best Practices: the National Association of State Workforce Board Chairs and the National Association of State Liaisons for Workforce Development Partnerships. The next bi-annual NGA Workforce Symposium will be hosted in Washington, D.C., in February 2023. For more information about the Workforce Development Technical Assistance Program or the affiliate associations, please contact Rachael Stephens.