Rebuilding Our Digital Infrastructure to Create Equitable Economic Opportunity
For the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about technology and its ability to create economic opportunity for people around the world. To be clear, I’m no expert on any of this, but I’d like to someday help build a better future based on my experience in the private sector.
- At Voysis, which was recently acquired by Apple, we thought about accessibility, data privacy, and multi-modal experiences with voice technology.
- At Notarize, we reimagined the digital transaction economy, helping millions of people sign and notarize life’s most important documents.
- And now, at LinkedIn, we build products that connect communities that help people access the tools and skills they need to excel in their careers.
With these experiences in mind, I wanted to imagine how we can rethink the digital infrastructure in the United States so that we can create more equitable economic opportunities for our workforce today, as well as in the future.
In this post, we’ll cover three areas:
- Rethinking education and professional development systems to support remote work
- Equal access to the Internet in underserved areas so that people in every community have the opportunity to start a business or thrive in digital environments
- Creating innovative policies through public and private sector partnerships that allow our country to move forward
Lifting Up Communities Through Education and Upskilling
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve heard a lot about upskilling; the process of learning new skills to meet the demands of your job tomorrow. Technology has disrupted many professions, from healthcare to manufacturing, and upskilling gives current working professionals the ability to adapt, or to quickly pivot into a new role.
In April, LinkedIn shared that people watched 1.7 million hours of learning content on LinkedIn Learning, which was a 3x increase in time spent compared to just the first week of January. Moreover, LinkedIn reported that membership in Learning Groups was up 130% from February to March during the initial onset of the pandemic. These two stats reinforce the acceleration of demand we’re seeing career transformation and digital upskilling play in key industries.
Upskilling is just one part of the equation, however. There are three additional stats that I think will shock you to learn how far we still have to go to support our future workforce:
- McKinsey estimates that nearly 400 million workers will have to switch occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 because of automation and artificial intelligence.
- 56 percent of the nearly 300,000 unemployed veterans in 2019 were between the ages 25 to 54
- Only one third of college graduates believe they will have gained the skills to be successful in the workforce
This tells us that no matter how well the economy is doing according to the stock market, there’s a disparity between what we see on the news and what our reality is. There is a growing gap in how many people feel prepared, or have access to the resources they need, in order to succeed in the workforce. We need to spend more time thinking less about individual, state-by-state programs that isolate certain groups and backgrounds, and instead demand a federal mandate around the support needed in partnership with the private sector. Upskilling resources should not only be more accessible, but proactively used by Human Resources and Talent departments. And with more companies focusing on retaining talent longer, the government can incentivize low turnover rates inside companies.
Remote Work Presents Opportunities to its Benefactors
Upskilling is just one part of the issue; remote work is the other. While technology is creating more jobs, and further globalizing our workforce, it’s also widening the economic gap in the United States. Remote work and automation are creating more opportunities for those who are tech-fluent, driving job scarcity for essential workers: those that work in a warehouse or involved in hospitality, food services, security staff, healthcare, and more.
As a result, technology and the rise of remote work is further widening our wage gaps, providing disproportionate amounts of opportunity and economic value to those with access and proficiency in the technology to meet the workforce demands of tomorrow.
This is a hard problem to solve, but there are a few ways we can think about this and ways to change it.
To start, we should think about incentivizing the right behavior rather than penalizing remote work. Deutsche Bank recently said they would be in favor of a 5% tax for remote workers, but instead I would prefer to see tax incentives for companies that commit to a percentage of their essential workforce learning new skills and entering new jobs. Similar to mandates around diversity, inclusion, and belonging, we should also demand companies commit to helping those whose jobs are being displaced from within their own organization to new jobs in emerging careers. And similar to rewarding lower turnover rates in companies, there should be a clear path for career development within any role inside an organization whose job may be affected in the short-term by technology’s advancements.
Denmark is one of the leading countries in the amount of adults involved in continuing education and upskilling to combat career changes due to technology. Peter Hummelgaard, the Minister of Employment in Denmark said that short courses and accessible apprenticeships even for those with little education background are keys to bringing scale to this problem.
We have lots of work to do, but we can create more economic opportunities for both employees and companies and lead as a nation in policy if we just spend the time to encourage and reward actions that will ultimately make our country more innovative as a result.
Internet Access Still isn’t Equal for All
Roughly 20 million people in the United States don’t have Internet access. For many of us, it’s hard to fathom, but in communities around the country, dial-up has been the default option to connect because of the existing telephone infrastructure and cost prohibitiveness to upgrade. It wasn’t until I spoke to my sister, who is a middle school English teacher, that I realized this was happening in both urban and rural areas alike.
When you think about Internet access, here are three reasons why this is an issue:
- For remote schooling, this means students with lack of Internet access at home are at a disadvantage
- For those looking to learn new skills and make a career change, digital opportunities are harder to come by
- For those who want start their first business or create social change, their lack of connectivity forces them to start behind the eight ball
From a policy standpoint, we need to firstly demand that every pocket of our country has equal access to the Internet. We’ve gotten to the scale where this can be done in a cost effective way that will make other operations more efficient as a result. Secondly, we need to intervene earlier in continuing education. Rather than focusing on supporting skill development after one graduate’s college or during their professional career, we need to introduce vocational training into K-12 curriculums that will provide real-world experience and exposure to the next generation of dreamers.
Equitable, Economic Opportunity lies in Public-Private Partnerships
President John F. Kennedy once said, “Economic growth without social progress lets the great majority of the people remain in poverty, while a privileged few reap the benefits of rising abundance.”
When it comes to creating equitable economic opportunities for all, we need to look to Public and Private Sector partnerships. The Public Sector helps with planning, and the Private Sector helps with execution and scale. Imagine if they came together.
Today, these are isolated endeavors; the Small Business Administration and Department of Labor help with entrepreneurship and small business resources, as well as supporting Workforce Development Boards that develop regional strategic plans and set funding priorities to develop the talent of the nation’s workforce.
LinkedIn has courses to learn emerging skills in demand in your field while up and coming startups are focused on introducing deeper digital knowledge in professions that may have never used technology to the scale our global economy will demand — supply chain, manufacturing, healthcare, etc.
In order for us to provide economic opportunities for all, we need to demand a more integrated public and private approach to the future of our global workforce. We need to rethink our digital infrastructure — from education and upskilling to access to technology — and take advantage of the innovation we’ve seen over the past decade and turn that into an operationalized action plan that lifts more communities out of disadvantage and into positions of opportunity.
Time is too precious to reminisce on the achievements of the past. It’s on us to take these ideas and achieve even bigger feats “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”