Governors are creating new and more equitable workforce development opportunities through broadband investments and new digital tools.
by Timothy Schoonhoven, Loren Shimanek, and Jake Varn
Closing the digital divide has been a long-standing priority for the nation’s Governors. Access to high quality, affordable broadband unlocks access to commerce, employment and job training opportunities, remote and improved K-12 and postsecondary education, telehealth, precision agriculture, enhanced utility services and connected infrastructure, and more. As part of NGA’s series on the importance of affordable broadband access in all aspects of life, this article showcases how Governors are creating new jobs and workforce development opportunities to capitalize on new investments in broadband infrastructure and adoption.
When it comes to broadband and the workforce, the conversation is often centered on two distinct groups: those that are directly employed in the construction, management, and maintenance of broadband infrastructure assets, and those that are indirectly enabled to access new employment opportunities because of access to broadband.
Governors have been at the forefront of rapidly developing and deploying solutions. During the COVID-19 pandemic and in the ongoing period of economic recovery, Governors have made significant advancements in creating new workforce opportunities through broadband investments and new digital training programs and are improving equity in both direct and indirect broadband-related employment.
To support these efforts, as Governors drive meaningful action toward a stronger, more resilient, and more equitable post-pandemic economy, in March 2021 NGA launched the Workforce Innovation Network (NGA WIN). NGA WIN, comprised of Governors’ workforce policy advisors, state workforce development boards, and executive administrators from various cabinet agencies, is supported by more than 20 new philanthropic supporters, subject matter experts, practitioners and industry leaders.
NGA WIN is centered on four key objectives: expanding access to essential support services; rapidly connecting job seekers to work; enhancing job quality for all workers; and advancing digital access and skill development. NGA WIN is currently working with a cohort of 10 states to help them rapidly connect unemployed job seekers to essential support services, work, or training by improving their coordinated service delivery. Microsoft, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, and the National Skills Coalition – all members of NGA WIN – have launched a new State Digital Equity Scorecard to track how states are meeting digital workforce needs, providing online trainings, technology apprenticeships, and incumbent worker training funds.
Workforce Needs to Expand Broadband Infrastructure
Broadband construction, operation, and maintenance jobs are not just in high demand – they also offer high-quality job and career opportunities to workers who may traditionally be excluded from higher-quality jobs and careers. In comparison to the overall workforce, broadband-related workers are more likely to be employed full-time, earn higher wages, be represented by a union, and face relatively low barriers to entry such as postsecondary degree requirements, but these same workers can be limited by a lack of standardized credentialling, low wage growth, and direct paths to higher-paying jobs.
A recent report from the Brookings Institution on federal infrastructure investment estimates that an $80 billion federal program for broadband would directly create 200,000 job-years across 130 occupations, primarily for the installation, maintenance, and repair of the infrastructure. Economic models from Deloitte indicate that in 2016 a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration would have resulted in the direct and indirect creation of more than 800,000 jobs by 2019. Further, a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia on how policies to increase internet and device access can drive labor force participation estimates that “expanding access to a broadband-enabled computer for prime-age workers who currently lack access could bring nearly 400,000 additional residents into the labor force” in the U.S.’s 25 largest metropolitan areas alone. Rural communities also derive tremendous direct and indirect benefits from broadband access. In 2017 alone, rural communications providers are estimated to have supported $10 billion in economic activity and contributed to more than 77,000 jobs. An October 2020 report from the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee projected that at least 20,000 more broadband-related technicians, such as line and tower equipment installers and repairers will be required in the next ten years to accommodate expansion and upgrade efforts.
In May 2021, Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed legislation to create a new, $150 million Vermont Connectivity Broadband Fund with funding dedicated for workforce development, creating a training program in partnership with the Vermont Technical College and a broadband installer apprenticeship program. The new legislation also instructs the state’s Commissioner of Labor to conduct a workforce needs assessment for the buildout and maintenance of broadband infrastructure, identifying current and future employment opportunities and determining the prerequisite skills needed for widespread worker recruitment and for building a talent pipeline.
Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb has invested a combined $270 million for improving broadband access and adoption across the state through the Next Level Connections Broadband Grant Program. Within the program’s 250-point application scoring process, applicants are awarded up to 15 points for “Community Support and Engagement” with a specific provision focused on the degree to which the proposed project will include local hires and provide opportunities for local hires such as apprenticeship programs, job fairs, and training programs.
New investments also present opportunities to enable access to these good jobs, as well as other opportunities made available by broadband access and adoption. Currently, direct infrastructure workforce employment in the U.S. lacks racial and gender diversity. For example, 83 percent of telecommunications line installers are white, and only 6 percent are women. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report on women’s labor force participation 10.3 percent of construction workers in the U.S. are women, despite women comprising 47 percent of all workers nationally.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper created a new Office of Digital Equity and Literacy, a first for North Carolina and the first in the nation. The office is part of the newly created Division of Broadband and Digital Equity within the North Carolina Department of Information Technology. The office will execute Gov. Cooper’s plan to expand digital literacy offerings and partnerships across North Carolina, as well as lead the Digital Equity and Inclusion Collaborative and promote the NC Digital Inclusion Playbook for local municipalities.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), recently passed by the Senate, would establish an interagency working group to specifically address workforce needs in the telecommunications industry. If the provision remains and the bill and is ultimately passed by the House of Representatives and signed by the President, the working group envisioned in the IIJA will be charged with, among other responsibilities, identifying ways to improve recruitment in workforce development programs in the telecommunications industry; improve coordination among federal agencies and states; better facilitate employment in telecom for veterans returning to civilian life; and improve safety of telecom workers.
Supporting Job Centers During COVID-19 and Looking Forward to an Inclusive Economic Recovery
Governors are also resourcing job centers to equip those receiving unemployment benefits with laptops, internet access, and new job training opportunities. Expanding broadband access, coupled with improving digital skills literacy, allows the potential for job centers to assist participants regardless of their existing digital access and skills and reduce other barriers such as negotiating childcare and accessing transportation.
For example, as the COVID-19 pandemic introduced a new-found reliance on digital services, Governors responded to ensure workforce programs could keep up. In June 2020, NGA examined how states and territories adjusted work-based learning programs to adapt to the pandemic, enhanced workforce systems, increased access to dislocated worker aid, and provided new tools for virtual job seekers:
- The Minnesota Department of Education published guidance on work-based learning programs in the time of the state’s stay-at-home order.
- California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a cross-sector partnership to support the transition to distance learning programs and bridge the digital divide.
- Oklahoma’s Office of Workforce Development, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration’s Office of Apprenticeship, hosted webinars on how employers and apprenticeship program sponsors can support apprentices through online learning and training in response to the crisis.
- New Jersey created the State of New Jersey COVID-19 Jobs and Hiring portal as a centralized resource to match businesses hiring for open positions with jobseekers who lost their job or have reduced hours due to COVID-19.
- Tennessee Governor Bill Lee issued Executive Order No.70 to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Through the Executive Order, all nine of Tennessee’s local workforce development boards expanded access to virtual services and leveraged the Tennessee Virtual American Job Center website that connects to the state’s 80 job centers and provides employment assistance as well as other state agency services.
Looking ahead, Governors are also dedicating resources to ensure a strong economic recovery and more equitable workforce opportunities are available across all sectors. In Kansas, Governor Laura Kelly created the Advantage Kansas Coordinating Council through Executive Order 21-08 to better align the state’s educational institutions and training opportunities with government and business needs, though a lens of “transparency, equity, inclusion, and accountability.” Gov. Kelly and the Council released a framework report in February 2021, detailing how the state’s investments in broadband, including a new $85 million, ten-year Broadband Acceleration Grant program, can be leveraged for new workforce and business opportunities across the state.
As the non-profit think tank Heartland Forward outlined in a report commissioned by NGA Chairman and Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson’s Task Force for Economic Recovery, the apprenticeship programs offered by the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences play a critical role in advancing and retaining the state’s digital workforce. The Center works with dozens of employers in the state to place apprentices in a variety of data, cybersecurity, and IT positions.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis released the state’s Broadband Initiatives Report in October 2020, which recommended the newly created broadband advisory board partner with the state’s Office of Future of Work to focus on digital literacy and inclusion efforts as part of the state’s broader effort to close the digital divide and promote digital equity.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards issued Executive Order JBE 20-3 in February of 2020 establishing the Louisiana Governor’s Advisory Council on Rural Revitalization (Council). In January of 2021 the Council released their strategic plan identifying challenges the state’s rural communities face. The plan identified how expanding economic opportunity through broadband can help create innovative workforce development service delivery strategies. Broadband-enabled strategies could include partnering with local broadband providers and public Wi-Fi entities (e.g., local libraries) to ensure internet access is available for virtual learning and training opportunities.
Hawaii’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Cable Television Division supports and promotes activities and programs that increase broadband adoption and use, including low-cost home internet service programs and digital learning. The Division has a dedicated workforce resources page to improve digital literacy and increase access to internet-based education, job training, and employment opportunities.
Governors have also created innovative partnerships with anchor institutions to increase resources for digital learning tools. In Arizona, the Connect Arizona initiativeprovidesfree tech support and digital literacy resources through a collaboration with the state’s library system. Similarly, the Maine Digital Inclusion Initiative is a partnership between the National Digital Equity Center, the University of Maine System, and the Maine State Library to offer education and technology training, specifically for Maine’s older adult population.
To increase access to jobs in skilled trades, the South Carolina BePro, BeProud program has deployed a mobile Workforce Workshop, housed in a semi-truck, to offer technical training through virtual reality programs, in partnership with the Associated Industries of South Carolina Foundation and the state’s Department of Employment and Workforce.
Several of these examples, and more, have been detailed further in NGA’s State Roadmap for Workforce Recovery.
Broadband to Support Community Revitalization
As economies change and grow beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for broadband is becoming clearer than ever before. Broadband infrastructure and access enable the workforce training and development necessary to support larger economic development. Broadband connectivity allows communities across the nation to revitalize their local economies, train workers to fill positions, and attract workers and residents to relocate as remote workers or start new businesses in the community. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) points out that closing the digital divide is a key component of rural workforce development, supporting industry and employee attraction and retention and expanding opportunities for communities with physical transportation barriers. This access also supports infrastructure and amenities that allow community members to participate in services like telehealth and virtual education that have shown their value in an unprecedented way during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Federal broadband partnerships and resources facilitating broadband deployment can create a cascading economic benefit for entire communities. The FCC’s Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity recognized this important link by classifying e-connectivity, economic development, technological innovation, rural workforce, and quality of life as five key indicators of rural prosperity. USDA’s Resource Guide for Rural Workforce Development highlights federal resources for workforce development planning, infrastructure, education and training, and business development, including programs to support broadband investment,. In addition, the USDA’s e-Connectivity Toolkit outlines the Department’s programs to expand broadband through planning, construction, research, workforce development and training, and other technical assistance and support services.
Broadband investments also support workforce development, economic diversification, and revitalization for communities facing economic transitions. Federal programs such as the Department of Commerce’s Tribal Connectivity Grants, the Department of Labor’s Workforce Opportunity for Rural Communities initiative, and the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Partnership for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative grants enable communities facing transition to invest in broadband and new digital workforce resources. For example, Colorado Governor Jared Polis’s Just Transition Action Plan outlines several key strategies to support communities traditionally reliant on energy production that are moving towards economic diversification and job creation, including how state agencies can coordinate infrastructure investments to ensure communities have the necessary physical assets for success, especially broadband. In New Mexico, participants in the New Mexico State University statewide collaborative–an initiative with state agencies, community leaders, and industry (the Innovation and Commercialization for a Regional Energy Workforce, or iCREW)–identified broadband infrastructure as the top strategic target for state economic development. The state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and Economic Development Department are collaborating to develop a comprehensive statewide economic development strategy, highlighting broadband connectivity as a key strategic tenet alongside workforce attracting and business incentives.
As Governors have shown, closing the digital divide is vital to connect people to new job opportunities and new digital resources. Quickly and efficiently deploying the infrastructure to provide more universal and equitable internet access will require an unprecedented number of skilled technicians, network engineers, and line installers. As states and territories begin deploying billions of dollars in new funds, workforce development stakeholders, such as governor-appointed and business-led state workforce development boards, can play a key role.
State workforce development boards play a role by elevating and prioritizing job training and employment opportunities to directly support meeting the broadband sector’s skilled workforce demands. State workforce boards can also indirectly support the deployment of innovative service delivery strategies through job centers to increase access, enable expansion of associated broadband-dependent jobs, and mitigate digital skill disparities.
Governors are making significant strides to create more accessible digital workforce training tools and are investing directly in their broadband infrastructure workforces. Through strategic investment in broadband, Governors are also indirectly impacting the broader workforce by increasing broadband access that helps accelerate community economic development.