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Digital Skills Gap Hits All Levels of Job Market

Three business people looking at a spreadsheet on a laptop.

​A crucial digital skills gap among U.S. workers is creating an "invisible drag on productivity," according to the National Skills Coalition (NSC). This gap is not limited to people with IT responsibilities, said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, a senior fellow at the coalition, which is based in Washington, D.C.

A hotel worker will need digital skills to assist a customer with a key that connects a phone app with the hotel's Bluetooth system. A welder may need to know how to manipulate an augmented-reality headset that overlays instructions, such as a schematic drawing, onto complex equipment. A home health care worker may have to teach clients how to use a customized app to schedule medication reminders and appointments and to connect with caregivers.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employees]

One-third of both manufacturing workers and health and social workers in the U.S., though, have no, or limited, key digital skills, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found in a survey of adult skills.

Workers with no digital skills exist in all age groups but are more prevalent (29 percent) among those ages 45 to 54, the OECD found. Most workers with no digital skills have a high school diploma or less and are clustered in the lower-earnings quintiles. They typically are white or Latino and are more likely to be male and have limited English skills compared to U.S. workers overall, according to the OECD. 

The NSC defines "no digital skills" as any one of the following: being unable to complete four out of six basic computer tasks, such as using a mouse; having no prior computer use; or being unwilling to take a computer-based assessment.

It defines "limited digital skills" as an ability to complete simple tasks with a generic interface and a few uncomplicated steps, such as sorting e-mails into different folders.

The deficit in skills is not limited to low-level workers. The OECD found that 20 percent of supervisors in the U.S. have no digital skills and 33 percent have limited digital skills.

digital literacy pie charts.jpg

Fragmented Knowledge 

Nearly one-third (29 percent) of workers ages 16 to 34 have limited digital skills.

"People may have [access to] the technology but only know how to do a few specific things," Bergson-Shilcock pointed out.

"They can post on Facebook but that doesn't mean they're comfortable navigating the process of a more complicated task" or can perform basic skills such as highlighting text on a screen or dragging and dropping information into online folders.

Yet the need for workers with digital skills will continue to grow, with the Urban Institute noting that the number of jobs requiring these skills is predicted to increase 12 percent by 2024.

"Many occupations that were previously technology-free, such as janitorial work, now require technology for such basic tasks as checking room assignments and filling out timecards," the institute said in its August 2019 report, Foundational Digital Skills for Career Progress

"Occupations as diverse as construction and nursing are likely to see more digitally intensive tasks and therefore greater demand for workers with foundational digital skills."

Apprenticeships offer training customized to an organization's skill needs. However, "if what you're trying to do is find a community health worker, you probably don't have time for a multiyear apprenticeship," Bergson-Shilcock said.

Offering training, she added, "doesn't mean you have to set up some big elaborate thing."

These relatively low-cost programs can help workers build the digital skills they need:

  • Partnering with adult education programs. These are similar to the model used for high-school equivalency programs. Bergson-Shilcock suggested employers encourage participation by making training mandatory and compensating employees for their time if classes occur after work. 
  • Creating industry-sector partnerships. This may involve six to 10 employers in a similar industry, such as hospitals and nursing homes, to provide training.


​An organization run by AI is not a futuristic concept. Such technology is already a part of many workplaces and will continue to shape the labor market and HR. Here's how employers and employees can successfully manage generative AI and other AI-powered systems.