28M Low-Tech Jobs Are Gone: Here’s What We Can Do about It


New Research Shows Increasing Need for Digital Skills on the Job

By Chris Miller, Communications & Development Associate

When Demika was looking for ways to move her career forward a few years ago, she hit a roadblock. Jobs required tech skills that she didn’t learn growing up – not that long ago many of those technologies didn’t even exist.

Over the last 15 years, while Demika was working and supporting her family, the number of jobs that require little-to-no technical skills shrank dramatically?—?by as much as 40% according to a recent report from The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

The study, “Digitalization and the American Workforce, examines workforce data on 545 professions, accounting for 90% of the American workforce, from 2002-2016. By assigning “digitalization” scores to these jobs and tracking them over time, the study demonstrates how work has changed and why workers need increased technical skills, like the ones Byte Back teaches.

Demika Alston

Demika spoke at Byte Back’s Grand Opening event in October 2017.

Demika had mostly worked in restaurants and was ready for something more stable – an office job with benefits. When she looked for positions outside of the service industry, she found jobs that required a college degree and technical skills – she had neither. “I felt like technology had grown up around me, and I was in a losing battle,” she said. (Read more of Demika’s story here).

Byte Back Executive Director Elizabeth Lindsey speaks at Brookings about how free tech training is essential to creating more living-wage career opportunities in our communities.

Technology has certainly grown up in the last two decades. The Brookings team, led by Mark Muro, Director of Policy at the Metropolitan Policy Program, found that 95% of jobs saw an increase in digitalization scores. High digital jobs grew from 5 to 23% of employment of employment in jobs studied. Mid-digital jobs went from 40 to 48% of employment. And low-digital jobs, jobs like Demika’s restaurant position? They shrank from 56% in 2002 to only 30% in 2016.  DC’s number is even lower, at 28%, according to Muro’s presentation of findings at a Dec. 7 Brookings panel. (Watch Muro’s presentation and panel discussion featuring Byte Back Executive Director Elizabeth Lindsey).

Some of those individual low-digital jobs may have been lost to automation or outsourcing, but among low-digital occupations studied, nearly 50% moved into mid- or even high-digital levels over the last 14 years. These impacts are apparent in office administration or customer service jobs. Classic paper, pen, and telephone jobs are almost entirely computer-based today. Massive industries like healthcare, construction, and media have all undergone equally dramatic shifts with digitalization.

These changes have huge benefits … for some people, that is. Higher digital scores correlate with higher wages and resilience against automation. Industries that digitalize become more efficient.

The challenge, though, is for those who were left out of the digital evolution of work – people like Demika, who couldn’t get access to the modern workplace because she hadn’t learned skills no one knew she would someday need. Many hardworking, dedicated people who didn’t grow up with technology and didn’t have the time or money to learn later in life are in the same position: at best, relegated to low-digital jobs with average salaries less than half of high-digital position and a higher risk of automation.

Image from “Digitalization and the American Workforce,” Muro, et. al.

It is harder than ever to find what the report calls “good jobs” or “on-ramp jobs”: full-time, living-wage careers that don’t require a college degree. These jobs used to act as pathways to the middle class for those with limited access to education. With digitalization, those on-ramps now have barriers, including lack of access to technical skills training.

“Tens of millions of jobs that provide the best routes toward economic inclusion for workers without a college degree turn out to be less and less accessible to workers who lack basic digital skills,” according to Muro et. al, p. 33.

Cities like Washington, DC now face a massive challenge of inclusion, reflected by our high digitalization score and the city’s expansive wage gap. Many in our community are benefiting from digitalization and high-tech industries, but thousands are left out with seemingly little hope of ever moving up.

Many people in Demika’s position can’t afford to pursue a degree, and even if they could, it’s hard to take time off from their two or three jobs – they have families to support. Technical bootcamps are also frequently out of reach – too expensive and inaccessible to people who don’t yet have computer basics down. Demika found an alternative. She enrolled in classes with DC mentorship program Streetwise Partners, and then found free tech training at Byte Back.

At Byte Back, Demika took classes designed for people with her skills and goals. She worked her way from basic tech skills, like setting up an email account, up to certification prep courses, which prepared her to earn multiple industry-recognized Microsoft Office Specialist certifications.

Demika’s new skills and certifications make her competitive in the new digital workforce –  now she has a chance at a “good job,” a stable, living-wage career to help support her family.

With digitalization showing no signs of slowing, more jobs will require even higher skills, and there are thousands of members of our community and communities across the US that deserve that same chance.