Source: Brookings - The Brookings Institution | Stuart Brotman | October 27, 2016

Job creation has been a central issue in this year’s presidential campaign, particularly how best to increase the number of available higher-paying jobs. This challenge is two-fold. First, federal policies must offer greater support for innovative technology-based sectors where the U.S. can compete effectively in global markets. Clean-tech energy businesses promise to be an important source of new employment, with the tangible benefit of addressing other top national priorities—lowering our dependence on foreign oil, reducing our nation’s carbon footprint, and slowing climate change’s impact on the environment. Second, massive job retraining with significant federal funding will help workers without the necessary skills for employment in growing sectors remain part of an essential middle-class economy.

The importance of workforce retraining is underscored in a recent report from the Pew Research Center. Its analysis of government jobs data found that for the past several decades, employment has been rising faster in jobs requiring higher levels of preparation – that is, more education, training and experience.

This data shows that the number of workers in occupations requiring average to above average education, training and experience increased from 49 million in 1980 to 83 million in 2015 (i.e., by 68 percent). This was more than double the 31 percent increase over the same period in employment, from 50 million to 65 million, in jobs requiring below average education, training and experience.

The Pew analysis also indicates that the job categories with the highest growth tend to require higher social skills, analytic savvy and technical prowess. Since 1980, for example, employment increased 77 percent –from 49 million to 86 million– in jobs requiring higher levels of analytical skills, including critical thinking and computer use. By comparison, the number of workers in jobs requiring higher levels of manual or physical skills, such as machinery operation and physical labor, has changed relatively little.

Although this data makes clear that the direction of U.S. labor market demand is likely to remain on a skills-based trajectory over time, policies that address this trend must take into account the supply side of the equation as well. Here, another recent albeit unrelated Pew analysis bears close attention as a warning sign that despite the upside of creating a new tech-savvy labor force, the road ahead for job retraining is a rocky one indeed.

Millions of workers may well get left behind because of their deficiencies in e-learning capabilities that are essential to retraining. According to Pew, American adults have uneven levels of “digital readiness” to engage in these learning activities. This term refers to five main factors:

  1. confidence in using computers;
  2. facility with getting new technology to work;
  3. use of digital tools for learning;
  4. ability to determine the trustworthiness of online information; and
  5. familiarity with contemporary “education tech” terms.

Not surprisingly, this analysis found a spectrum of digital readiness– from relatively more prepared to relatively hesitant. Those who tend to be hesitant about embracing technology are in the majority (52 percent). Within this cohort are those with generally lower levels of involvement with personal learning activities, a professed lower level of digital skills and/or less trust in the online environment.

Only 17 percent of adults in the Pew Center survey were characterized as “digitally ready” active learners who are confident in their ability to use digital tools to pursue e-learning. They also utilize digital outlets, such as online courses or extensive online research, to a significantly greater extent than the population at large.

Policymakers should look at these separate Pew Center analyses in tandem—two critical variables in any equation for sustainable job growth. Unless many more adults move into the “digitally ready” category for e-learning, necessary job retraining may not benefit workers in labor sectors that are being left behind.

Stuart Brotman is a Nonresident Senior Fellow - Governance StudiesCenter for Technology Innovation at The Brookings Institution