Technology Skills for the 21st-Century Workforce


Technology Training

The changing nature of work necessitates the development of digital skills in the knowledge economy. Within the rapidly expanding health care, tech, manufacturing, and finance industries, middle-skills jobs increasingly require workers to cultivate a robust digital skill set to compete in an economic market marked by technological innovation. Research has shown that nearly 8 out of 10 middle-skills jobs now require a degree of digital proficiency. At the same time, employers report a digital skills gap that hampers economic productivity and growth in their respective sectors.

To propel America’s workforce forward, a proactive approach to workforce development must address the changing technological demands of employers within talent pipelines. Furthermore, supplemental training for midcareer professionals is necessary to upskill workers as automation transforms job tasks. When workers are equipped with digital skills and a proactive workforce development strategy, they are more prepared for digital advancement and career pathways into middle- and high-skill jobs that foster economic mobility. Understanding the shifting need for digital skills in the 21st century is vital to regional economic growth and competitive human capital development. RaEDA facilitates the following initiatives to improve of rural citizens technology skills:

• Apprenticeship and other work/learn/earn programs
• Credentials and skills-based hiring
• Upskilling and reskilling for incumbent workers
• New funding models to pilot and scale programs
• Tech training partnerships
• Mentorship and Shadowing programs

Digital Skills

The demand for digital skills in the job market increasingly requires that workers bring technological know-how to the table, especially as innovation and automation change the nature of work. While the number of new jobs requiring digital proficiency is significantly increasing, many workers are left without a foundational skill set to compete for the fastest-growing jobs. Workforce development is an integral aspect of economic development strategy and the need to invest in digital and technical skills is salient. Regions seeking to build a talent pipeline should consider all points of entry along that pipeline, from young and future workers to those who risk being displaced in the existing labor market. This effort entails a new mind-set around recognizing degrees, certifications, and credentials for technical talent, knowing that not all job seekers will have college degrees but may have the skills needed to learn, adapt, and advance along a career pathway. Incorporating workforce development models that account for digital advancements will provide expanded opportunities for individual economic growth and mobility and help to achieve a more resilient and vibrant economy and workforce.

Rural Communities Is Our Focus and Core Strategy

While many people enjoy the benefits of today’s thriving economy, this rising tide has not lifted all boats. The Great Recession hit rural communities harder than urban areas and recovery has been slower, according to a report by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. Rural economies tend to rely on one or two viable employers, which can leave the community vulnerable to economic upheaval should one of those employers choose to leave or close business within the rural area. The report also notes that rural communities generally have lower education attainment or opportunities than urban areas, and struggle with a lack of public and private investment.

RaEDA has identified four unique economic challenges facing rural communities. That being said, we have identified four core strategies as our focus:

  1. Improve current lack of access to broadband internet
  2. Help keep Local Talent Local
  3. Improve Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and Other Technological Advances
  4. Improve access to timely and sufficient healthcare

(a) Lack of Access to Broadband Internet

More than 31 percent of rural Americans do not have access to broadband at home, severely hindering their ability to know what jobs are available. Not only are they deprived of opportunities to apply to these jobs, they are also unable to apply to jobs that provide remote working opportunities. 

Improving access to broadband in rural communities will require collaboration from public and private sectors. According to Alvarez Technology Group, an information technology company, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is driving communication reform in rural areas in partnership with the Universal Service Fund (USF) and now wants to expand the objectives of the USF to include broadband as part of their focus. And through their Airband Initiative, Microsoft is working with rural broadband providers to help close the digital divide and provide access to 2 million rural Americans by July 2, 2022.

Unfortunately, many rural communities are near broadband fiber optic lines, but don’t have access.  

(b) Keeping Local Talent Local

Talented young people are leaving their rural communities and moving to urban areas to find career opportunities not available close to home.  

To address the root causes of this phenomenon, RaEDA focuses on initiatives that encourages young people to return or stay in rural areas. Rural communities can benefit from the skills and experiences these returnees bring. We also encourage entrepreneurship in rural areas to provide a diversity of jobs in a community.

Employers also have a role to play. If they were to use a competency- and skills-based approach to recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and training, candidates and employees could also help rural communities thrive. By focusing on what skills current residents have and what skills will make them more competitive in today’s labor market, rural communities can invest in their own workforce.

Providing young people with information about all the career paths available to them can also help provide a community with the skills they need to help small towns thrive. 

(c) Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and Other Technological Advances

As the way we work changes, companies are increasingly relying on automation and new technologies instead of human workers. A new report from the Brookings Institution found that jobs that are vulnerable to automation are more likely to be found in rural towns where there are more jobs that require routine or repetitive work, jobs that are particularly vulnerable to automation.

We need to invest in entrepreneurs that want to build in their communities, so that there are jobs available for the people who choose to stay. RaEDA targets partnerships with businesses in select rural communities with populations of less than 25,000. This program aims to encourage businesses to move in rural communities by offering incentives.

As this article illustrates, rural communities, government, business, and education will all need to work together to come up with solutions to the workforce challenges facing rural America.

(d) Timely Healthcare Access in Rural Communities

Access to healthcare services is critical to good health, yet rural residents face a variety of access barriers. 

Ideally, residents should be able to conveniently and confidently access services such as primary care, dentalcare, behavioral health, emergency care, and public health services. According to HealthyPeople 2020, access to healthcare is important for overall physical, social, and mental health status, disease prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment of illness, preventable death and life expectancy.

Even when an adequate supply of healthcare services exists in the community, there are other factors to consider in terms of healthcare access, for instance:

• Financial means to pay for services, such as health or dental insurance
• Means to reach and use services, such as transportation to services that may be located at a distance, and the ability to take paid time off of work to use such services
• Confidence in their ability to communicate with healthcare providers, particularly if the patient is not fluent in English or has poor health literacy
• Trust that they can use services without compromising privacy
• Belief that they will receive quality care