In this segment of “Office Optional with Larry English,” he talks about recognizing how the pandemic can lead to improving the digital divide.
The pandemic has more greatly exposed workers who have been unable to participate in the digital economy, threatening to leave them further behind. While nearly one-third of American workers lack even “foundational digital skills,” a recent Brookings Institution analysis found that “digitalization” is increasing across the workforce. In 2016, the number of jobs demanding “high digital skills” rose to 23 percent, up from just five percent in 2002.
However, I am hopeful. I believe the pandemic may also have a silver lining: It is creating the change and environment necessary to start bridging this digital divide.
Remote technology is a great start. It has already begun breaking down geographic barriers for workers, especially in areas hard-hit by shifting economies. What’s more, in our new all-digital world, the skills employers will increasingly need, such as computer programming, will become increasingly valuable — people can do them from anywhere, at any time. Workers can now learn the skills they need to participate in a knowledge economy through remote tools—a win for employers and employees alike.
Still, many workers from nontraditional backgrounds struggle to gain access to technical skills. In St. Louis, Missouri, LaunchCode is one organization helping provide access to free software development education for those eager to learn. It then works with companies that need skilled workers to put LaunchCoders into jobs. Their mission is simple: to build a skilled workforce.
Yes, Some Good Things Happened In 2020
LaunchCode Executive Director Jeff Mazur told me that like the businesses and workers the organization serves, the pandemic forced them to change their business model overnight. In March, they switched to an all-remote model after seven years of delivering 20 weeks of programming to up to 150 people for six hours a week in a single room.
“We had to learn to train our cohort of students to learn in a virtual setting,” Mazur said. “At the same time, we had to adjust the program to be as effective online as it is in person by increasing the teacher-to-student ratio, spending more time with each student and investing in more remote technology.”
An additional challenge was overcoming what Mazur called “the imposter syndrome.” The workers LaunchCode serves often don’t feel that they are part of the tech community.
“It is hard to build that feeling in a virtual environment,” Mazur said, “But it’s not impossible.”
LaunchCode’s Success Reveals a Path to the Future
After less than a year of working with their new model, LaunchCode is succeeding. Not only are their success metrics for the remote class comparable to their in-person success rates, but even more people are seeking them out.
“In a class with 150 seats to fill, and we may get 1,200 applicants,” Mazur explained. “While some people may do better with the in-person component, many people can succeed in a fully remote, lightly supported model. That allows us to essentially enhance our capacity at very little cost.”
Clearly, the pandemic has created an environment in which a nonprofit like LaunchCode can adapt to deliver their services online and benefit workers in the process. Talking with Mazur gave me hope that this new environment can help for-profit businesses bridge the digital divide, too. Here’s how:
- By allowing more companies to take part in the knowledge economy – The pandemic has caused most companies to realize that a remote workforce can be as productive as a traditional workforce, if not more productive—and that geography no longer limits their talent pools. As even more companies see these benefits positively hitting their balance sheets, they will respond with more internships and apprentice programs for new knowledge workers from programs such as LaunchCode.
- By allowing economic benefits to go to more areas of the US – Many parts of the US far from urban centers have suffered as the old industrial economy shifted to a new, knowledge-based economy. Companies that can effectively train knowledge workers and employ them remotely can rebuild large parts of the country. Simultaneously, just as LaunchCode learned, companies can benefit from lower-cost infrastructures and become more competitive because they don’t have to pay the premium for having workers in high-cost coastal urban cities.
- By allowing more companies to improve their diversity and inclusion – This year’s events have caused much-needed conversations about how to improve diversity and inclusion in companies around the world. LaunchCoders are very smart people who simply have not had opportunities to obtain technical skills because of geographic or economic disadvantages. Allowing more remote workers from different locations to participate in the knowledge economy gives companies access to new talent pools. Employees will benefit from new opportunities as employers develop a much more diverse workforce that is ready for the challenges ahead.
Yes, the pandemic has been transformational, but I think it has created opportunities as well as challenges. In fact, the pandemic may end up being the catalyst needed to start our country on the journey of bridging the digital divide.