Study: Dramatic rise of digital skills should shift job-training focus


Austin ranks among the most digitalized labor markets in the country.

Rising requirements for traditional low-skill and entry-level jobs threaten vulnerable workers.

A really nice black-and-white print. It’s about all Jana Birchum misses about analog photography.

“Otherwise, to hell with it,” Birchum said. “It was a lot of standing around in the dark with smelly chemicals.”

These days, she and most of her professional photographer peers are happy to leave darkrooms in the past. Of course, the transition wasn’t a walk in the park — with the $13,000 cameras, having to process film just to digitally scan it again, and then needing to learn new software to edit digital images.

“That was the most miserable thing,” she said, “the time and energy that had to be expended” beyond the craft of shooting a good photo.

Birchum can laugh about it these days because she, like most photographers, has gone “100 percent digital.” In fact, since 2002, only one other occupation has transitioned as far and as fast to digital as photography has, according to a new study released Wednesday by the Brookings Institution.

Back then, photography ranked 343rd out of 545 individual occupations in terms of the infusion of digital skills into the job, the report said. Last year, it had jumped to No. 53, trailing only “forest and conservation workers” for the sheer pace of digitalization over that time.

“There’s no analog involved whatsoever anymore,” Birchum said. “The only useful way for anything to be is digital now.”

Photographers are hardly alone. All but 30 of the 545 occupations analyzed by Brookings became more digital from 2002 to 2016 — and most of the increases were extensive.

Certainly, the notion that the American workplace has become more computer-centric won’t surprise anyone. However, the new study provides unique data on just how and where the transformation occurred — and what U.S. workers and job-training programs must do to adapt.

“Without this kind of detail, you think it’s all about coding, or you don’t realize how massively things have changed in 15 years for many people” who work at firms outside the high-tech industries, said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings and co-author of the report.

Muro and his colleagues found that the share of jobs requiring a moderate level of digital skills jumped to 47.5 percent since 2002. The percentage of occupations that require deep digital expertise more than quadrupled, to 23 percent.

Yet, the researchers also found that many of the traditional low-skill and entry-level jobs now require more digital skills as well — a fact that threatens to leave behind a growing number of untrained workers, especially those already struggling to pull themselves up the career and income ladder.

The share of U.S. employment in jobs that involve only low levels of digital skills “declined precipitously,” the report said, to 29.5 percent last year from 55.7 percent back in 2002.

“We were surprised to see the rapidity of growth and change, especially at the bottom half,” Muro said. “In some ways, the bottom half is really at ground zero of massive (digital) installations during this time.”

Central Texas followed a somewhat similar pattern, with its share of “low digital” occupations dropping to a quarter of local jobs last year from almost half of the base in 2002. However, it and other key tech hubs around the country diverged from other metros, posting especially sharp increases in the “high digital” tier, the report said.

The density of tech firms and their effect throughout a metro economy has helped Austin, Silicon Valley, Boston and other tech-oriented cities tighten their grip on jobs that require both a depth of technical knowledge and a lot of time deploying those skills.

“Austin is on the short list of places that are pulling away from the rest of the country … if you measure by the density of these highly digital occupations,” Muro said.

Software, e-commerce and other tech firms in Central Texas are mired in a pitched battle over a limited supply of coders and programmers. With local computer science programs producing far fewer graduates than needed to fill the region’s job postings, companies have looked to recruit talent from elsewhere or poach skilled workers from one another.

In terms of overall digitalization, Austin posted the seventh-highest digital score of any metro in the country — reflecting not only the region’s high-tech concentration, but the ripple effect those companies and workers have on non-tech companies, too.

“Digital adoption is more broad in your region because of the presence of tech, per se,” said Muro. “The whole ecosystem is saturated with technology.”

Yet, when looking at all U.S. metro areas and viewing their digitalization rates across a broad spectrum of occupations, the less tech-oriented metro areas actually closed the gap on the big tech centers, the researchers found. They also discovered that many of the less-digitalized jobs in 2002, such as photography, underwent “radical increases” in the infusion of computer and tech skills in the years since.

So, while Muro and his colleagues suggested an expansion of the country’s high-skill information technology talent pipeline — such as coding boot camps, computer science programs and the like — they also urged workforce officials to “greatly expand” basic digital literacy initiatives, as well.

“I think there is a default to, ‘Oh my god, everybody needs to learn coding, and we’re in no position to achieve that,’” Muro said. “The correct issue is, ‘Oh my god, everybody needs to know Microsoft Office and Salesforce, and we’re in no position to achieve that, either.’”

The people who tend to lack these skills already are the most vulnerable in today’s rapidly changing workplace — older workers, disadvantaged populations and the long-term unemployed.

And, because the application process itself has become a more computer-intensive operation, it’s becoming even harder for those workers to get a foot in the digital door, said Tamara Atkinson, director of Workforce Solutions Capital Area.

“We’re seeing in many cases long-term unemployed clients, if they can get to a point where they can have a face-to-face (job interview), they can do pretty well,” Atkinson said. “But those initial hurdles that are part of the labor exchange, they’re particularly difficult.”

Many of Workforce Solutions’ various job-training and education partners around Travis County provide computer and digital skills training programs. But with technology changing the workplace so rapidly, she said, they can be more effective if they provide a foundation of skills that workers can enhance on the job and as they progress through their careers.

It’s a fine balance between providing broad enough skills and still producing trainees who can land competitive jobs.

“We’ve done a good job in Austin of offering computer courses and training,” she said, “but the applicability of that training, starting at the beginning level and up to the advanced — it’s the on-the-job work experience where we don’t have the breadth of opportunities.”

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