New work-force training law a chance to improve digital skills

Tom Ferree of Louisville is president and COO of Connected Nation, a non-profit working to expand broadband access.
Tom Ferree of Louisville is president and COO of Connected Nation, a non-profit working to expand broadband access.

Today, a staggering 4.6 million jobs remain open because companies cannot find the talent to fill them. Meanwhile, there are 9.5 million unemployed Americans who need to find work.

The solution seems obvious: Make these jobs available to our unemployed through training and telework to dramatically reduce unemployment levels. A critical step is to invest in technology. We can't bridge the unemployment/skills gap without investing in technology training programs in our states.

For the first time in 16 years, we have a significant opportunity to invest in our work force in a meaningful way. The Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act signed into law last week by President Barack Obama, following overwhelming bipartisan support, governs billions in federal spending on job training, and marks the first time since 1998 that this law has been reauthorized.

It eliminates several programs, gives governors more flexibility to use federal funding, and aims to boost participation in the work force by young people with disabilities. That flexibility will allow states to invest in boosting digital skills and will also open the doors for more flexible approaches to work-force training, including training at public libraries.

The next steps in this reauthorization are to give states proper funding to make these changes and to create programs that will generate tech-savvy workers.

According to Connected Nation's business technology adoption survey, 40 percent of U.S. businesses report difficulty finding workers with the proper technology skills. We are not talking about coding and web developers, but people lacking the basic skills necessary to operate in the 21st century.

Every sector that is hiring is evolving with this rapidly changing, tech-driven world. Today's workers also need to evolve. They need to be connected, able to do such tasks as communicate via e-mail and navigate customer service in a virtual world. Yet, our studies show that nearly one in three working-age adults would have difficulty with tasks such as sending an e-mail or using word processing software.

If we want to continue to be the largest, most competitive economy in the world, we have to carry on the truly unique tradition of American innovation as supported by a very well-trained, nimble and highly skilled work force.

The job landscape is already evolving. Everyone is moving online, making our successful businesses mobile, fast and global. Companies are streamlining through computer technology by increasing telework opportunities and closing brick-and-mortar storefronts. If we do not equip our workers with the digital skills that drive our economy, we will lose these jobs overseas.

Who benefits from digital training? Everyone. It gets the unemployed working again. It gives our businesses the edge they need in talent. It provides a new opportunity for our most vulnerable citizens who have lost work due to disabilities or factory shutdowns, or the aging demographic whose fixed income retirements must now be augmented due to challenging economic conditions.

With the right investments, tech training can be a lifesaver for an untold number of Americans.

Companies are willing to in-source telework jobs in our economically depressed areas if the properly trained workers are available. Programs like Digital Works ensure that communities that have been hit with massive job losses are able to bounce back through the opening of training and mentoring centers. The hope of a recovering community is a powerful force and can go a long way to restore vitality in several collateral measures.

Now that America has authorized the investment and the president has signed the bill, it's time to decide how it's used.

The next step will be implementing regulations at the Department of Labor, and that is the first opportunity to make the case for inclusion of digital literacy and digital skill training initiatives in states.

We should be entrepreneurial and invest in work-force training that promotes mobility, digital literacy and sustainable job paths.