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One-Third of Manufacturing Workers Have Limited Digital Skills

One-Third of Manufacturing Workers Have Limited Digital Skills

April 30, 2020
The National Skills Coalition is calling for policy changes to solve this digital skills gap.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for workers in all industries to have strong digital skills. Nowhere is this more true than in the manufacturing sector, with entry-level workers now expected to use all manner of digital devices and equipment. As the sector directly employs more than one in ten U.S. workers and indirectly supports millions more, the  National Skills Coalition studied its digital skill level. 

The report delivered some surprising statistics. More than one-third (35%) have limited or no digital skills. 

The breakdown of that figure is that 16% of currently employed American manufacturing workers have no digital skills, and an additional 19% have very limited skills.

And 16% of currently employed American manufacturing workers have no digital skills at all.

From a different perspective, one third (36%) have a basic level of proficiency, while just 29% have the advanced skills necessary to be most adaptable to changing technology.

“These skill gaps are especially problematic in the modern environments of advanced and precision manufacturing,” the group says. “Workers must be able to use tools such as 3D printers on the shop floor, monitor and interpret data from sensors throughout a manufacturing facility, and even use “wearable tech” to receive in-the-moment training through virtual reality.

The workers with no digital skills failed to meet one or more of the three baseline criteria to even take the full digital skills assessment: 1) prior computer use, 2) willingness to take the computer-based assessment, 3) ability to complete four out of six very basic tasks, such as using a mouse or highlighting text on a screen.

People with limited digital skills can complete simple digital tasks that have a generic interface and just a few steps. An example would be a person who is presented with five e-mails in an inbox. The e-mails are responses to a party invitation. The task is simply to sort the e-mails into pre-existing folders to track who is and is not attending the party.

For those with a basic level of proficiency in their digital skills, tasks typically require the use of both generic and specific technology applications. For example, a person might be presented with a new type of online form, and need to navigate across multiple pages and applications to answer the test question. The task may have multiple steps and may require the use of tools (such as the “sort” function) to solve the problem. The person may have to identify the goal themselves and engage in higher-level reasoning to solve the problem.

 To help overcome this skill gap the group has some public policy recommendations.

Congress can take action by investing in upskilling for individual workers and jobseekers, and supporting industry-led training partnerships. Current federal investments in workforce development provide almost no dedicated support for digital skill-building; most notably, Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act lists digital literacy as one of the numerous allowable activities for adult education programs.

The recently-introduced Digital Equity Act (HR 4486/S 1167) would make a more substantial, targeted investment in digital literacy through twin grant programs to the states: one structured as formula funding, and the other as competitive funding.

Digital literacy investments could also be bolstered through other key federal workforce and education policies, such as the Higher Education Act, Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment and Training (SNAP E&T).

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