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33 million Americans are still offline. It’s time to bridge the digital divide

This Capgemini exec says we have a digital inclusion problem that has put those without the connectivity skills and access at a severe disadvantage.

33 million Americans are still offline. It’s time to bridge the digital divide
[Source images: z_wei/iStock; Rost-9D/iStock]
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Businesses are more digitally connected than ever as a result of COVID-19. Most CIOs I speak with have told me it has accelerated their organization’s digital agenda by five years, and the demand for “digital everything” from the business has maxed the IT organization’s capacity. Yet, this connectivity puts many in our society at a disadvantage. People who have access to the internet and connected devices also have access to most of the opportunity, education, training, and career options. But those without these resources, who are already economically disadvantaged, struggle more to learn and grow, advance their education, or advance their careers in the job market. And according to a Pew Research Center study, there are 33 million Americans (10%) who are currently offline.

These two sides demonstrate the digital divide. Those who have access to internet connectivity, computers, mobile devices, and other digital assets can more easily build the skills needed for careers in the modern era. Naturally, those who do not have this same access are at a clear disadvantage. 2020 research from Capgemini revealed that 44% of offline respondents believe they would be able to find better paying jobs and educate themselves if they had internet access.

Bridging the digital divide is one of the great challenges we face as a society today. In the U.S., the primary barrier is cost. 84% of the offline population under 36 years old says the cost of an internet subscription is what prevents them from going online, compared to a 51% average globally. 76% of the offline population in this age group in the U.S. also say computers and mobile phones are too expensive, compared to 56% globally. In addition to these economic barriers (67% of the offline population is below the poverty line) a disproportionate percentage of the offline population are women–53%. 

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[Image: courtesy of Capgemini]
Achieving digital inclusion will take a strong stance from business leaders willing to provide equal opportunities for those who are being held back. The economic hurdles are impossible to ignore, as it may require robust public/private partnerships to financially support the programs needed. But as leaders, it’s time to start thinking about the ways to accomplish this lofty goal.

Here are three considerations for those hoping to bridge the digital divide and create an equal playing field for future workers: 

New approaches to hiring and recruiting

For many leaders, a hiring decision is based on the best candidate. But did every candidate have an equal opportunity to earn the position? Not everyone starts with the same amount of equity, and the result can lead to a lack of diversity among teams. One solution worth trying is to create a younger candidate pool. Particularly since the pandemic began, there is an increasingly visible digital divide based on socioeconomic conditions among school-aged learners. When students don’t have access to the internet for remote education, how do you step in, as a leader hoping to recruit some of this future talent, to ensure they get the access to the same education and exposure to the same careers?

Our organization is working to accomplish this through employee-hosted volunteer events with organizations such as TechGirlz, Junior Achievement, Per Scholas, and Year Up, which provide tech training, mentorship, resume reviews, and mock interviews–closing the opportunity divide by helping students gain valuable skills and experiences. Since 2019, we have welcomed 91 interns through our Digital Academy program in the U.S., hiring some of them for full-time positions with Capgemini, and by the end of 2020, we had supported more than 330,000 total beneficiaries through all our digital literacy programs across the company.

Mentorship throughout the life cycle of a career

As a business leader, most people probably assume that I am usually the “mentor” to others, but I still keep in touch with those who mentored me. For the next generation of workers who are overcoming the digital divide, having someone to lead and guide them will be essential. Our organization supports this effort through our Mentoring Matters employee resource group, encouraging mentorship relationships within the company. 

Whether you cleared the digital divide or already had the access and resources, each of us can serve as mentors for the next wave of talent, personally helping to get them across the divide, and providing easier routes so their journeys consist of more opportunity and access. Enable them with internet technology, and spend time teaching them how to take their high school or college classes online and interact in a digital world.  Take all those “virtual connection” skills you have learned during the pandemic while running your business or project and teach these students how to navigate in the world of digital education. Leveraging chat sessions, emails, and video calls are essential when they can’t just walk up to a teacher after class.  

Preparing the leaders of tomorrow

For those attempting to clear the digital divide, earning a degree and securing a job is difficult enough. But their aspirations will likely be even higher: to become the leaders of tomorrow. To successfully accomplish that goal, these future leaders will need exposure to the leaders of today. As a leader, my priority is to be accessible to each Capgemini team member, regardless of his or her role. For those who clear the hurdles of the digital divide, the possibilities should be as open and available as they are for those who had the access and privileges from the start. Leaders who want to provide avenues for their teams to climb the ladder should work on promoting and modeling behaviors of equality that go beyond the workplace. When they see that example, the next wave of leaders will likely recreate that model for their own future teams.

As businesses, we are more digitally connected than ever before–and it’s easy to forget that there are many others who lack the same access to this technology-centric world. To close that gap, it’s time to start exploring ways to provide access and opportunities for those who face these digital challenges. There is enormous, untapped potential in the workers (and leaders) of the future. If we are willing to look for and reach them at a younger age, mentor them along their paths, and in the end, prepare them to lead, it may go a long way toward bridging the digital divide. 

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Eileen Sweeney is EVP of Manufacturing, Automotive, Life Sciences, and Aerospace & Defense at Capgemini North America.