The blog of the Urban Institute
September 9, 2019

Now Hiring: Digital Literacy Skills Required

September 9, 2019

In 2019, a janitor needs to fill in her timecard online and a parking attendant needs to use a tablet to log cars in a database. It’s a reflection of the increasing digitization of jobs. More and more jobs now require digital skills, including many that traditionally did not require them. But many American adults still lack foundational digital skills.

The most recent national data (PDF) show that 67 percent of adults were not digitally literate in 2012. Even higher shares of adults who do not have a high school diploma or who are older, foreign-born, or who are Black or Hispanic lack these skills.

Digital skills are much broader than specialized knowledge of coding or advanced computer use. Foundational digital skills range from having basic knowledge of how to use information and communication technology (e.g., being able to use a mouse or access the internet) to carrying out clearly defined digital tasks (e.g., writing an email or conducting a specific internet search). Those with more advanced foundational digital skills are considered “digitally literate,” meaning they can apply this basic knowledge to new circumstances, contexts, or platforms and are able to more easily learn new digital tasks.  

Foundational digital skills are also increasingly required for other employment-related tasks, such as searching for a job or participating in online education. Even many in-person classes now require foundational digital knowledge, such as using an online portal to access or turn in homework.

As automation replaces many routine tasks, skills that are more automation proof—such as communication, teamwork, and abstract problem solving­—increasingly must be partnered with foundational digital skills because they take place on digital platforms. Tasks like scheduling, meeting, and communicating with others are often done via digital platforms, like email and web conferencing.

Although the share of people who lack foundational digital skills is likely declining because of greater use of smartphones and other digital technologies, we have a long way to go to close the gap. Research suggests we can’t assume the problem will go away on its own just because young people are digital natives. Some digital skill providers suggest that extensive smartphone use does not translate directly to the broader set of digital skills needed on the job. In addition, disparities in foundational digital skills are closely related to gaps in access to technology, which affect historically disadvantaged populations and rural households at an outsize rate (PDF).

The good news is that digital skills training is available from many providers, including libraries, community-based nonprofits, public workforce centers, and occupational training providers. Employers must also step up; in a recent business survey of US workers, 62 percent believed their employer should invest more in developing digital skills.

Current providers of digital skills training recommend several ways to increase digital skills:

  • Integrate digital literacy into existing employment and training programs, particularly for adult learners and workers displaced from occupations.
  • Explicitly assess digital skill levels to better understand needs.
  • Account for and work to overcome barriers to accessing technology when teaching digital skills.

These efforts to increase foundational digital skills need recognition and funding. Policymakers, program leaders, advocates, and philanthropies interested in improving economic mobility and job opportunities need to acknowledge the importance of foundational digital skills.  

A worker monitors a strawberry patch with remote moisture sensing units and irrigation equipment at an orchard in Montgomery County, MD, USA. (Photo by: Edwin Remsburg/VW Pics via Getty Images).

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