Train workers now — and upgrade infrastructure — for the post-pandemic digital future


Record numbers of Americans have filed for unemployment because of the coronavirus pandemic, with grim job losses predicted over the coming months. Projections by the St. Louis Federal Reserve show U.S. unemployment could reach 47 million, or 32 percent, considerably higher than the 25 percent unemployment peak during the Great Depression. This unprecedented level of unemployment will especially hurt communities already ravaged by job losses. Many analysts, including the Congressional Budget Office, have predicted the economic recovery will be slow, with high unemployment through 2021.

While governments at all levels now are appropriately focused on addressing the immediate health and economic crises, planning for an economic recovery must begin. The crisis has created an urgent need, and a unique opportunity, for the U.S. to take two decisive steps that would contribute significantly to a strong recovery.  

First, we should enact a bold, comprehensive program to provide training at no cost to furloughed and unemployed American workers, equipping them for the digitized economy and shortening the time it will take them to find jobs after the pandemic subsides. 

Second, we should make badly needed investments to upgrade America’s digital infrastructure. The U.S. lags behind other countries in the speed and accessibility of its digital infrastructure, particularly in rural and low-income communities. When Congress acts on an infrastructure package to jump-start the economy, investing in upgrading America’s broadband infrastructure should be a priority. 

These two measures, taken together, will position America to emerge from this crisis as a global leader.   

Today’s soaring unemployment is exacerbating a skills gap in the American workforce. Before the pandemic, there were between 6 million to 7 million unfilled jobs in the U.S., primarily because of a mismatch of worker skills and available jobs. The lack of digital skills is a major component of this gap. 

Digitization of the workplace has been transformational — two-thirds of the 13 million U.S. jobs created in the past decade required medium or advanced levels of digital skills, while only 30 percent of jobs require no digital skills. Low- and middle-skill jobs increasingly are automated, threatening to displace as much as a third of the workforce over the next decade, widening income inequality and regional divides.

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this shift. Almost overnight, millions have shifted to working and learning online, as have trends such as shopping and ordering food. It is reasonable to predict that even when the pandemic eases, some of these shifts will become permanent, eliminating some retail and service jobs. Once schools have honed their ability to teach online, they can offer more of their courses online, as an alternative to or to supplement classroom learning. Businesses will realize that it is cost efficient to have some workers telecommute, saving rent, utilities and other fixed costs. The economy will bounce back, but many jobs will not return, and individuals who held those jobs may not have the skills to survive an increasingly digital economy. 

Over the past 150 years, there have been several periods of rapid American industrialization, which created the demand for a newly skilled workforce. Each time the U.S. responded by upgrading the education system to meet the challenge — expanding high school education, establishing the state university system, implementing the GI Bill and other educational initiatives — which ushered in decades of growth and American global leadership. 

With so many Americans currently at home, furloughed or unemployed, this is a unique opportunity to launch a comprehensive digital training program aimed at these workers. The federal government should fund community colleges to greatly expand their online digital training and offer it at no cost to these Americans. Companies should receive funding to partner with community colleges in developing digital job preparedness programs, also offered at no cost. Many digital companies have existing job training programs and, where possible, that training should be moved online. 

Funding also should be allocated for digital apprenticeships, by the public and private sectors, to address needs such as creating and maintaining databases for state and local governments, testing websites and applications, developing easy online content for technology-challenged seniors, and developing or extending services for rural communities. Workers who do not have access to a home computer could take advantage of this training once the quarantine is lifted.  

A comprehensive digital training program will have the added effects of providing needed income for community colleges and their employees. 

The second important component of creating a digitally prepared workforce is to upgrade our digital infrastructure. Our internet infrastructure is being tested like never before. Even before this crisis, U.S. internet infrastructure lagged behind that of other countries. Last year, the U.S. ranked tenth in terms of internet connection speed, behind the Nordic countries, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, and 30th in terms of mobile download speed

This lag in service is even more pronounced in low-income and rural America. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 63 percent of rural Americans say they have a broadband internet connection at home, as opposed to 91 percent and 94 percent for urban and suburban families, respectively. As recently as 2019, 29 percent of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone, 44 percent don’t have home broadband services, and 46 percent don’t have a computer. This gap impacts about 3 million American children (18 percent) who don’t have broadband home service to do their homework. 

Great strides to increase broadband availability have been made, largely because of congressional pressure, but significant gaps remain. With Congress once again considering a large infrastructure package, it is critical that significant funds be allocated to upgrade the U.S. digital infrastructure and ensure that rural and low-income communities can benefit equally from new technologies such as 5G. 

Using this time of crisis to upgrade internet infrastructure and fund a comprehensive digital training program will create a population of digitally trained citizens with access to world-class technology. Together, these initiatives will contribute to a strong economic recovery and better prepare the U.S. to take on the challenges of digitization and automation, now and into the future. 

Orit Frenkel is executive director of the American Leadership Initiative. She is president of Frenkel Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in trade and Asia. Follow her on Twitter @OritFrenkel.

Tags Broadband coronavirus economy Internet access Pew Telecommuting Unemployment

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