Future of Work

Jobs of All Types Now Require More Digital Skills, Brookings Report Finds

By Benjamin Herold — November 15, 2017 3 min read
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Nearly every job is becoming more digital, shifting the skills that today’s students will need to access every rung of the future labor market, concludes a new report released today by the Brookings Institute.

“We definitely need more coders and high-end IT professionals, but it’s just as important that many more people learn the basic tech skills that are needed in virtually every job,” Mark Muro, a senior fellow and policy director at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, said in a statement accompanying the release of the report, titled Digitalization and the American Workforce. “Not everybody needs to go to a coding bootcamp, but they probably do need to know Excel.”

The report comes amid considerable attention to the ways technology is reshaping the economy and labor market. The shifts have major implications for K-12 schools, as Education Week explored in-depth in a recent special report on “Schools and the Future of Work.”

Which jobs require the most digital skills?

For their analysis, the Brookings researchers examined roughly 15 years’ worth of O*NET survey data on the knowledge, skills, tools, technology, education, and training required in more than 500 occupations, covering 90 percent of the U.S. workforce. The focus was on how much knowledge of computers is required for various jobs, and the centrality of computer-usage to each position.

Based on that analysis, the researchers classified some professions, such as software developers and financial managers, as highly digital. Occupations such as lawyer, nurse, and office clerk were classified as moderately digital, while security guards and personal care aides were seen as low-digital.

Overall, Brookings found, the share of employment in highly digital occupations has tripled since 2002, from 4.8 percent to 23 percent, representing 32 million total workers in 2016. Most workers (66 million) are in moderately digital occupations, which have grown more slowly. And the share of workers in low-digital jobs has dropped sharply, from 55.7 to 29.5 percent.

That said, however, even “low-digital” jobs, such as truck drivers and welders, now require dramatically more computer-based skills and work than they did a decade ago.

And higher levels of education don’t necessarily lead to more digital skills, Brookings found, although more digital skills does seem to lead to higher pay. “Workers with superior digital skills are earning higher wages than similarly educated workers with fewer digital skills,” according to the report.

Implications for schools

The Brookings researchers emphasize that acquiring digital skills is increasingly a prerequisite for success, no matter where you’re entering the labor market.

To help bolster the skills of tomorrow’s workers, they recommend expanding the “high-skill” IT pipeline, while also dramatically expanding “basic digital literacy,” especially among groups that are underrepresented in various sectors of the economy.

On the former, Brookings wants an expansion of computer-science education in schools, but also to see companies get more involved in workforce development, including efforts to make sure all students have access to school visits from tech professionals, after-school hackathons, job-shadowing opportunities, summer coding camps, and the like.

And when it comes to increasing basic skills, the researchers write, the focus should be on “broader exposure to more basic everyday software” used by workers in jobs requiring moderate digital skills.

“It is probably fair to say that the social good of having every high school student in America learn Salesforce might outstrip other trendier agendas in tech,” the report reads.

That’s particularly important for women and minorities, Brookings argues, because of widespread disparities within an increasingly digital labor market.

Women represent about three-fourths of the workers in jobs requiring moderate digital skills, the researchers found, while men “continue to dominate the highest-level digital occupations, as well as lower-digital occupations, such as transportation, construction, natural resources, and building and grounds occupations.”

At the same time, they found that in occupations requiring a high level of digital skill, whites and Asians are overrepresented, while Hispanics are significantly underrepresented.

African American workers, meanwhile, are overrepresented in “medium-digital occupations such as office and administrative support, community and social service, as well as low-level digital jobs.”

Graphic via Brookings Institute Metropolitan Policy Program.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.