Are American Workers’ Digital Skills Good Enough?

A new study suggests that U.S. workers don’t have the digital skills needed to compete in the manufacturing space. Sure, we have skilled IT workers, but Industry Week wonders whether the rest of us have the digital chops to keep up.

“In manufacturing” columnist Stephen Ezell says, “this could pertain to workers’ ability, for instance, to interpret the output of AI-based systems; or to use automated reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) tools to repair an automobile or jet engine; or on a more basic level just interpret spreadsheets or use databases.”

Digital Skills

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) released a report, Assessing the State of Digital Skills in the U.S. Economy, claiming that one third of working-age Americans have no digital skills or very limited digital skills. One in six can’t use email or search engines. 23% of U.S. households don’t own a computer and 7% don’t use the internet.

The concern is not primarily that there won’t be enough computer programmers and AI specialists to go around. It’s that people in ordinary, non-IT jobs increasingly need tech skills to keep up with the increasing requirements of their work.

35% of manufacturing workers are in the “no digital skills” (16%) or “limited digital skills” (19%) category. Yet it is expected that 80% of jobs in the industry will require some digital skills. Already, the level of digital skill required in manufacturing jobs is far higher than the level attained.


The solution, unsurprisingly, will require greater investment in digital and STEM education. The report claims that only one quarter of U.S. high schools even offer computer science courses. They get specific, saying that “more high school students in California take a class in pottery than in computer science.”

Pottery is valuable, but if this is true, it suggests that even a state known for its tech engagement is falling behind on basic digital skills.

A PwC study found that 60% of classroom use of technology such as computers is passive: watching videos and reading websites. Computers and internet access are commonplace in schools, but most students do nothing more complex than creating PowerPoints.

The same study found that teachers see the value of teaching robotics, data analysis and other digital skills, but do not have the confidence to do this kind of teaching.

Workplace training

Students don’t leave school with the digital skills they need, and U.S. employers don’t focus on training. The ITIF report says that American corporations invest just 1/6 of the resources comparable countries provide in training.

Sweden spends 12 times as much as American companies.

The U.S. government also spends less on training the current workforce — not just less than other governments, but less than it did 30 years ago. As a percent of GDP, the U.S. spends half what it did at the end of the 20th century, even though the need for digital skills has skyrocketed.

The United States can’t expect to remain competitive globally with this kind of skills gap.

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