Digital Skills for All: How Public Workforce Leaders Are Building On-Ramps to Digital Jobs for Underrepresented Workers

Published sep. 07, 2023

The public workforce system is building modern, inclusive, and accessible IT training ecosystems with virtual trainings that offer short-term, flexible, self-paced coursework with industry recognition.

If people are to succeed in an overtly digital world, they must possess the technical fluency to work, learn, and communicate as it demands. Even more importantly, society must demonstrate an ability to adapt and evolve to change as quickly as technology does. It’s still unclear how digital credentials, virtual and augmented reality, and artificial intelligence will impact work and learning environments. However, one thing is certain: the increasing need for digital skills in nearly every facet of our economy threatens to broaden an already acute skills gap prevalent among Black, Latinx, and Indigenous learners, as well as people earning lower wages.

Responding to this need, the public workforce development system, which is comprised of roughly 550 workforce development boards and over 2,500 American Job Centers, is committed to expanding pipelines into training opportunities that prepare workers and learners for IT careers across a variety of industries. This effort aims to provide people that have long been underrepresented in the IT sector with skills necessary to excel in today’s workplace and help bridge the digital divide that continues to grow across many regions of the U.S. Building sustainable pipelines that are flexible, nuanced, and supportive of individual learning styles requires that workforce organizations understand what people need to succeed and which types of training programs are most effective in meeting those needs.

Learn From the Workforce Leaders Making Strides in Delivering Digital Learning Tools to All

In March of 2023, in partnership with New Profit, JFF recruited four local workforce development boards to participate in a Digital Skills Pilot Initiative where they began offering industry-driven digital learning tools to learners in their communities, particularly those with limited resources or that are underrepresented in the tech sector.

The pilot, which runs for approximately 12 months, includes San Diego Workforce Partnership, Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas, which serves Wichita and the surrounding area, WorkSource East Central Georgia, serving nine counties near Augusta, and Workforce Solutions Capital Area serving metro Austin, Texas. Together, these workforce boards are piloting implementation of the suite of Google Career Certificates as well as IBM SkillsBuild to create more flexible and accessible on-ramps to industry-recognized tech sector credentials. While both platforms offer training and credentials for entry- to mid-level digital jobs, the way in which individual courses and programs are designed, delivered, and sequenced varies. This creates a valuable opportunity to assess trends and learning outcomes across both platforms in order to identify what works well for different types of learners.

Mobile training units allow participants that reside in under-resourced communities to complete their training programs without having to travel to a brick-and-mortar WorkSource location.

While still in the early stages, initial feedback reveals key trends that will continue to shape these organizations’ approach to participant recruitment, delivery of supportive services, career exploration strategies, and technical support to promote completion.

Brand and Industry Recognition Matters

Even before officially launching, some of the local workforce boards reported having large waitlists for participation, which they accredited to participant interest in securing meaningful credentials from reputable technology leaders like Google and IBM. In San Diego, where SkillsBuild is being piloted, over 150 individuals, many of whom represent immigrant or refugee populations looking to enter the tech sector, enrolled in the program within the first three months of advertising the opportunity, far surpassing the boards’ early enrollment target.

…But Access Matters More

The starkness of the digital divide is highlighted in two workforce boards’ approach to providing services. The Georgia Cyber Center and the U.S. Army Cyber Command at Fort Gordon are both located in Augusta, Georgia. However, La Tunya Goodwin, executive director of WorkSource East Central Georgia, notes that despite these cyber hubs being located in Richmond County, there are residents just 45 minutes down the road that live without internet access. To address this, the workforce board recently purchased a “mobile training unit,” a van equipped with internet access and a full-service computer lab that travels to a different local area each day of the week. This allows participants that reside in some of the region’s most under-resourced communities to complete their training programs without having to travel to a brick-and-mortar job center location. For some local residents, this is their only opportunity to access broadband outside of cellular devices.

Similarly, Wichita, Kansas, is currently experiencing a significant tech boom, but the city still lacks broadband access across segments of its service area. To help increase accessibility, the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas launched their Digital Skills E-Lab, a dedicated resource room participants can use to complete coursework and confer with a knowledgeable staff person, as needed.

Many learners enter the training program with existing credentials, degrees, and mid-level skills but are hoping to change career paths.

In Austin, Texas, Workforce Solutions Capital Area partners with Austin Free-Net, a local digital equity organization that supports learners with hardware such as laptops or tablets, foundational digital navigation training, and internet access through the city’s Affordable Connectivity Program.

Together, these organizations are experimenting with responsive, flexible solutions that help ensure everyone in their regions has the opportunity to access these programs.

Whether Exploring or Experienced, Demand for IT Credentials Is Growing

While some of the interested job seekers participating in the Digital Skills Pilot Initiative are looking to build on their existing tech experience by earning credentials in the fields of cybersecurity or data analysis, many others are entering with little to no existing education or IT background. Luckily, Adrienne Chuck, Manager of Workforce Development at San Diego Workforce Partnership, feels that their pilot succeeds in addressing these “beginner-level” goals, having been designed to gain insight into “the essential resources required to effectively engage job seekers who possess zero prior experience in the field of technology and identify and bridge any knowledge gaps that may persist among our participants upon completion of their training programs.”

Local board staff have also noted that many learners enter the program with existing credentials, degrees, and mid-level skills but are hoping to change career paths. They’ve enrolled participants with master’s degrees in fields outside of the tech sector. Meanwhile, others have been working in the tech sector for years but seek to expand their skill sets or advance upward along a career pathway. As a result, The Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas has already begun engaging with local employers interested in interviewing Google Career Certificate graduates. Employers in Georgia have already signed up for Google’s CareerCircle, which is Google’s dedicated job board that helps connect certificate holders to employers that are hiring for digital jobs.

JFF is working with leaders across the public workforce system to identify policy changes needed to make virtual training programs such as these more widely accessible to learners.

Along with this burgeoning employer engagement, pilot sites have noted that both Google Career Certificates and IBM SkillsBuild present unique value in helping to build a tech career pipeline for job seekers and a regional digital skills strategy that helps ensure the public workforce system can meet employer demand for new and emerging IT careers. Workforce boards have observed that even participants with relatively little knowledge of IT training programs and career opportunities have been able to enroll, explore, engage, and evaluate which skill sets and occupations interest them most.

Building Digital Skills Is for Everyone

IBM SkillsBuild has minimal barriers to enrollment and offers courses in multiple languages. This enables participants from San Diego County’s immigrant and refugee populations to explore which technology careers best complement their existing skill set. Early learning from their pilot indicates that asynchronous, digital skills training platforms have the potential to be valuable entry points for English-language learners who may eventually seek to enter more intensive training that leads to advanced credentials. The San Diego Workforce Partnership intends to continue utilizing IBM SkillsBuild as part of their regional digital skills strategy as a way to provide jobseekers with exposure to short, but focused, IT training modules, which compliments existing robust digital jobs exploration programs like CyberHire.

These four local workforce development boards are examples of how the public workforce system is building modern, inclusive, and accessible IT training ecosystems. As digital credentialing becomes more prominent in skills-based hiring, workforce boards should consider leveraging virtual training options like the Google Career Certificates and IBM SkillsBuild that offer short-term, flexible, self-paced coursework with industry recognition. To this end, JFF is working with leaders across the public workforce system to identify policy changes needed to make virtual training programs such as these more widely accessible to learners. Widespread acceptance of these programs on Eligible Training Provider Lists (ETPLs) would help ensure that all WIOA-eligible participants receive access to a variety of critical support services, such as transportation and childcare subsidies that are proven to promote completion.

What’s Next?

In the meantime, these organizations will continue to paint a clearer picture of learner experience and retention across the platforms. De-identified demographic data will be paired with user experience data to help the pilot evaluation team better understand how people from different backgrounds and education levels are interacting with the platforms and what additional services, supports, or approaches may be needed to support learner success. Ultimately, this data will help workforce boards become more effective at delivering training and career guidance to learners from all backgrounds within their communities.

Learn more about JFF’s Public Sector Digital Jobs Innovation work funded by