Digital and Technical Skills Gaps: Holding Back People, Economies

The skills gap is a global challenge, but programs aimed at technical training for 21st century employment offer pathways to more equitable workforce development. 

In the 1980s, the invention of the personal computer was seen as a harbinger of massive job losses for workers. It was feared that the machine would replace man and the economy would suffer. But that prediction was wrong. By some estimates the personal computer has created more than 15 million jobs in the United States alone. 

Technological advancements — like automation — are often seen as the culprit behind unemployment and other societal ills. But they can, in fact, be the opposite when harnessed for good. 

This is especially true for low-income minority and other underrepresented populations — who often trail behind in terms of the technical skills that are becoming more and more necessary to compete in the global economy.

Across the world, technical jobs in the construction, manufacturing and engineering fields are expected to explode in the coming years — with more than 130 million manufacturing jobs expected to be added due to automation in the US alone. Programs for “upskilling” underrepresented communities, and preparing them for an evolving workforce can make a big difference, on both an individual and societal level. 

The state of Massachusetts offers a case in point. 

Massachusetts has developed a network of regional vocational and technical high schools that serve as an on-ramp for students from disadvantaged backgrounds focusing on Career and Technical Education (CTE). For the state’s poorest students, attending these high schools had an enormous effect on student attendance and performance: 30 percent more students from the lowest economic backgrounds graduated from high school after attending the program. 

On an individual level, the benefits of taking part in CTE programs are impressive. Each additional year of CTE coursework represents a predicted income increase of 2 percent — a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars over a low- to mid-level employee’s lifetime. 

Yet, when it comes to technical training, women, as well as racial and ethnic minorities, tend to be left out of the picture; so too are older adults, who often lack the digital literacy skills to take part in this workforce revolution. 

Women currently receive fewer than one in 10 certificates for construction and engineering jobs. Despite representing 12 percent of the working population, African Americans hold just 7 percent of the highest-paying middle-skill jobs in the US; Latinos are also proportionally underrepresented. 

On a global scale, despite massive technological developments, 48 percent of the world’s population is considered to be “digitally excluded,” meaning they lack basic computer skills. If this does not change, the lack of skills will have an impact on the development of a labor force with 21st century capabilities. 

Even those who already work in technical fields aren’t necessarily receiving the technical education they need to succeed. According to the World Business Environment Survey, fewer than half of firms in developing countries offered digital literacy and job training — meaning that many employees are unable to develop the technical skills they need to compete as industry continues to evolve. 

The state of Massachusetts, of course, isn’t the only place thinking about how to bring a new generation of workers into technical fields and increase equity through technological access. 

Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) programs are proliferating in a number of African countries, including Ethiopia, Morocco, and Rwanda — where they explicitly aim to give workers technical and digital literacy skills. The African Education Fund, an initiative sponsored by the African Union, is investing heavily — around $200 million — in technical training programs. 

Still, the challenges to upskilling the global workforce are many: from vulnerable employment (which affects more than one in eight people between the ages of 15 and 24) to social and political factors such as conflict-affected areas, and migration, which prevents more than a quarter of a billion young people from accessing even a basic education — let alone a technical one. 

To build better workforces, and attain the growth necessary to achieve better societies for all, policy leaders will need to address these fundamental challenges, too — with a focus on those who are currently the most excluded. 

Comment section

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *