US Needs to Do Better at Building Digital Skills

January 10, 2022

A recent study sums up the state of worker skills in this country, and it is far from rosy. Tech News World connects the dots in its piece, “Report Finds US Workers Lagging in Digital Skills.” In both educating our youth and keeping adult workers up to date, the US is falling behind. It seems playing online games, watching TikTok, and using chipped credit cards do not provide a high-value tech foundation. Citing a recent think-tank report, writer John P. Mello Jr. tells us:

“One-third of U.S. workers lack digital skills, with 13 percent having no digital skills and 18 percent having, at best, limited digital skills, noted the report by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a science and technology institute. In essence, the ITIF reported, one in six working-age Americans are unable to use email, web search, or other basic online tools. ‘It begins with insufficient teaching of digital skills in the K-12 education system. Only a quarter of U.S. high schools have computer classes,’ the report’s author, ITIF Director of Global Innovation Policy Stephen Ezell told TechNewsWorld.”

Another roadblock is a lack of digital platforms at home for many students. Apparently 23% of households do not possess a computer and over seven percent of Americans do not use the internet.

Not only are we failing to teach our children what they need to know, efforts to keep the existing workforce current are insufficient in several fields. We learn:

“The lack of workforce digital skills is particularly acute in certain industries, according to the report. Across the U.S. construction, transportation and storage industries, half of all workers have no or only limited digital skills, while that share is over one-third across the health and social work, manufacturing, hospitality and retail and wholesale industries, it continued. The lack of digital skills in the manufacturing sector is particularly concerning, it added, especially because jobs in U.S. manufacturing increasingly demand a facility with digital skills, which is important for individual workers to be both competitive and productive, and for broader U.S. manufacturing industries as well.”

Ezell reports private-sector investment in training, as a share of US GDP, fell 30 percent over the past 20 years. According to the international Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), we invest about one-sixth the OECD average in labor market retraining among leading countries. Where does this lack of investment get us? Well below average in the developed world. A 2021 study from online education provider Coursera ranked the U.S. just 29th out of 100 countries in digital skills proficiency, putting us behind many countries in Europe and Asia.

This sorry state of affairs could all change if Congress ever manages to pass the Build Back Better bill, which includes funding for digital-skills training for both youth and established workers. We also see a ray of hope from yet another report, this one released last April by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. That study found 69%of organizations are doing more skill-building now than they did before the Covid-19 crisis. A silver lining, we suppose.

Cynthia Murrell, January 10, 2022


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