Addressing the Dearth of Digital Skills Data: Opportunities for States

Governors are working to address the digital skill divide and upskill local workforces for the future.

by Katherine Ash

States across the nation are advancing digital equity by forming coalitions, assessing local skill gaps and piloting new digital upskilling programs with local employers. This work takes place on the heels of the Digital Equity Act, which was signed into law in November 2021 as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The Digital Equity Act authorizes the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to release the nation’s largest-ever investment in broadband and digital equity, incentivizing states to develop statewide digital equity plans to promote digital inclusion, literacy and navigation. Now, with more than one-third of American adults having limited or no digital skills, these plans offer state workforce leaders a unique opportunity to address the digital skill divide and upskill local workforces for the future. As states await guidance from NTIA on plan development (anticipated this summer), a common set of questions has emerged:

  • What kind of data should states be collecting on digital skills?
  • Where can this data be found, and how should it be collected?
  • How should findings from this data inform activities in existing state education and workforce plans?

To address these questions, the National Governors Association Workforce Innovation Network (NGA WIN) partnered with several of its advisory organizations including the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, National Skills Coalition and World Education, to publish a new resource, Using Data to Advance Digital Skills: A State Playbook. This first edition offers states a how-to guide on using international, state, and local data sets to inform digital skills and inclusion planning. The Playbook is intended to help state and local broadband leaders, as well as economic, education and workforce leaders, assess digital skill needs in the workforce, identify populations, industries and regions in greatest needs of skills training and embed findings into state and regional plans.

Among the resources in the Playbook is a new matrix of commonly used datasets to measure digital literacy and skill demands and identify priority populations in need of training interventions. States and municipalities can consider building on these resources to narrow in on communities in greatest need of digital literacy programming. For example, states could consider layering U.S. Census data on areas with limited internet and device connectivity with state employment data to identify where individuals are least likely to participate in education and workforce training and, therefore, may need additional outreach.

NGA WIN was launched in 2021 to help states build resilient workforces in light of the COVID-19 epidemic. Today, NGA WIN, a bipartisan coalition of more than 15 states across the nation, is supporting six states with grant funding and customized technical assistance to help them develop plans focused on closing digital skill gaps – recommendations that will inform state digital equity plans developed later this year. Governors have authority to select which of several eligible entities will develop and administer these plans, which are designed to help states develop a multitude of digital inclusion initiatives, including things like digital literacy training, digital navigation and distribution of technology. NGA WIN grantees are preparing to publish the first statewide plans to close digital skill gaps this summer, offering states and municipalities a new cohort of leadership to follow once federal guidance is released.

One digital equity leader highlighted in the Playbook is Hawai‘i, which launched a Digital Literacy and Workforce Readiness Survey to measure literacy and readiness by demographics, education, occupation, industry and geography. This survey collected individual-level survey data via landline and mobile phone computer-assisted telephone interviewing, coupled with an internet survey and found that Hawai‘i shows lower rates of digital readiness than the level identified in a national benchmark digital readiness survey conducted in 2015. With support from NGA WIN, the Hawaii State Public Library System has since partnered with Workforce Development Council to apply these learnings to a new initiative, the Digital Skills Hui. Modeled after the successful Broadband Hui, this latest initiative will ensure access to broadband connectivity, devices and the digital skills needed to thrive in the digital economy.

In Oklahoma, the Employment Security Commission has recently developed a new methodology to examine the relationship between digital skill gains and wage growth. The state applied the digital skills scoring methodology from a 2017 Brookings Institution study with new O*Net data (the nation’s primary source of occupational information housed at the U.S. Department of Labor) to determine the likely increase on average wage level per unit of growth in digital skills. Early research suggests a modest positive relationship, which leaders plan to leverage alongside the NGA WIN grant to better prepare and inform the state’s strategic policy and programs to ensure a thriving, digitally skilled workforce. 

The Playbook also comes on the heels of legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to reauthorize the historic Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), offering concrete steps that states can take within or in coordination with the WIOA system. The Playbook highlights several strategies for embedding new data on digital skills into existing federally-authorized state workforce development plans to ensure data findings drive investments in the workforce, adult education and higher education systems. For example, states could consider analyzing state Unemployment Insurance (UI) claims data to see which geographic or demographic factors are correlated with people who contact the UI office by phone versus using the internet. This data could help shed light on zip codes, age groups or industries that have lower percentages of UI claimants using the internet to access public services, thereby offering new information about how to target workforce development resources to serve the underemployed. States’ efforts to implement these and other strategies described in the Playbook have also informed bipartisan recommendations from Governors to federal policymakers in advance of pending WIOA reauthorization, found in NGA’s Governors’ Principles for Renewing the Federal Workforce System.

As Governors across the nation continue to build the bench of broadband and infrastructure leaders who will help administer these new federal funds, advancing digital equity will need to include more than access and infrastructure. As states participating in the NGA WIN are already demonstrating, comprehensive digital equity planning requires gathering new information about where gaps exist in the adoption of technology – data that begins with a focus on digital literacy. 

In the coming months, NGA WIN will publish the findings from state efforts to close digital skill gaps alongside a new set of policy recommendations for Governors. States are invited to adopt these emerging lessons early and often in their efforts to advance digital equity and to also engage with NGA WIN directly so they can learn how these practices can serve communities no matter where they are on their digital workforce goals.

To learn more about the NGA Workforce Innovation Network and state innovations underway, sign up for the quarterly public newsletter and check back for regular updates.

Katherine Ash is an economic opportunity consultant under contract with the NGA Center for Best Practices and currently serves as the Consulting Director of the NGA Workforce Innovation Network.