When the COVID-19 pandemic forced employees to work from home, it forever changed the way we work. It also exposed stark digital divides and barriers to the workforce. Not having devices to connect is one barrier. The lack of broadband is another.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many people are being left behind. One estimate from BroadbandNow says as many as 42 million Americans are unable to access high speed internet in 2020. That’s roughly double the count provided by the Federal Communications Commission.
One thing is certain: communities of color are known to be hard hit. That’s something the New York-based nonprofit STRIVE—which provides job training and career development to job seekers—witnessed first hand.
“We see these enormous and widening gaps within our communities, which at STRIVE are primarily communities of color, in the digital skills, the access to WIFI and broadband, and also the technology tools needed to compete at work, says Philip Weinberg, president and CEO of STRIVE.
All Jobs are Digital
The organization is headquartered in New York, has a site in Atlanta, and offers programs around the country through partnerships. To bridge the digital divide, the nonprofit has launched its Digital Skills @ STRIVE initiative, offering varying levels of digital skills to prepare its students to meet the needs of employers.
“What we are seeing is that every job is now a digital job. It’s no longer the case that there are jobs that are digital, and jobs that are not digital. Across all industries, we were seeing those imperatives and we wanted to be responsive to ensure that our students weren’t left out of those opportunities,” explains Weinberg.
For someone in construction, for example, it might mean being able to read blueprints on tablets at construction sites. It could also include knowing how to communicate on an online work community such Slack.
A key component of the program is meeting its adult students where they are, according to STRIVE’s national training design and instructional specialist Clarence Jackson. Assessments are used to determine a student’s digital skills and the course is designed to be accessed on whatever device a student uses.
“Our constituents come from diverse backgrounds, so you may have some who have everything and you may have some who live in shelters and their access to digital equipment and software is limited,” says Jackson.
Loaner computers and tablets are distributed to students who need them. For students without internet access, Jackson says the organization has partnered with Comcast in Atlanta to provide broadband and WIFI hotspots.
The program features three tiers, starting with foundational skills such as writing resumes and uploading them. Occupational skills include things like medical billing and coding systems. The most advanced tier is for upskilling that may result in credentials and certificates.
STRIVE cites LaGuardia Community College in New York as one of its partners to provide training, including a new pilot program specifically geared for IT jobs.
Using Digital Skills to Advance
Jacqueline Edwards has turned to STRIVE several times since the 1990s whenever she’s needed help skilling-up to move forward in her career. She attended classes during the pandemic when all training moved online. In August, she landed a job.
She says the Microsoft Office skills she learned are proving useful in her job as a patient transporter at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Hospital. “With the jobs now, it did help because everything is online. You had to at least have knowledge of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Now, I know that I’m a little more marketable. I’m a little more knowledgeable. And I know these are the requirements they are looking for in the job market.”
Not all her confidence, though, comes from skills building. Edwards grows emotional thinking of the other support STRIVE provides.
“They give you everything, any support you need. Credit counseling. (Advice on) interview clothing, because I didn’t have clothing to wear. Before then, I didn’t know what to do, I was applying, applying, applying, and nothing was happening,” she says.
Jackson describes the program as holistic.
“It’s not just a workforce organization that is so regimented in delivering these outcomes of getting people jobs, it’s about transforming lives. It’s not so much about the entry level job,” says Jackson. “It’s who is the person who is getting this job, and how do they create longevity in their careers?”
Low Barriers to Entry, High-mobility Potential
STRIVE was able to place more than 1,000 people in health care jobs during the pandemic after an employer-partner identified specific needs. It’s all part of STRIVE’S strategy.
“We specifically identify fields that have low barriers to entry but high-mobility potential. It’s our commitment to ensure that our students can upskill, can advance, can acquire new skills, and then can accelerate their careers,” adds Weinberg.
Edwards considers her current job a foot in the door and is now exploring other opportunities at the hospital. Her ultimate goal is to move into health care administration.
Weinberg says once students like Edwards land jobs, STRIVE provides advanced digital skills for them as they move up in their careers. It’s all part of the organization’s effort to bridge the digital divide.
“We really see our Digital Skills @ STRIVE initiative as an equity imperative,” stresses Weinberg. “We see the digital divide as an issue of equity.”