President Barack Obama said it best in a March 11 interview with The Texas Tribune at this year’s South by Southwest in Austin, Texas: “It’s not enough just to focus on what’s the cool next thing. Part of what we have to do is to figure out how do we use and harness the cool next thing to make sure that everybody in this country has opportunity.”
In terms of bridging the digital divide, which President Obama has adamantly addressed since his nomination, we’ve come a long way over the past several years. According to White House Council of Economic Advisers Issue Brief in March 2016, “The number of U.S. households subscribing to the internet has risen 50 percent from 2001 to 2014, and three-quarters of American households currently subscribe.”
Yet there is still a large sum of individuals without access to or the ability to use computers or the internet. And, unfortunately, a majority of these individuals fit within the lower income bracket and are the ones who would benefit most from digital access. Broadband access and computer literacy provide numerous socio-economic benefits to communities and individuals, improving labor market outcomes, increasing economic growth, providing access to better health care, and enhancing civic participation, the White House Council of Economic Advisers said.
Locally, Seattle Goodwill is working to bridge the digital divide felt by lower income families and neighborhoods of color. With funding and support provided by Comcast, since 2014 Seattle Goodwill has offered three digital-equity-focused job training and education programs: web-based ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) training, done through Rosetta Stone for students to strengthen their English language skills; point of sale cashiering training, for equipping students with skills for better employment opportunities; and job search and employment readiness training, which teaches students to research and navigate the internet.
Completely free and open to the public, all three programs are designed to empower individuals—especially those who may otherwise not have access to computers, tablets, or the internet—with essential computer skills many of us take for granted. Students walk away from class ready to apply for jobs online, schedule appointments online, and send emails. These skills open the door to new opportunities in the workplace.
What’s special about Seattle Goodwill’s digital literacy initiative is that it’s primarily focused on Vocational Education for Speakers of Other Languages (VESOL), which allows students to learn English and job skills while familiarizing themselves with technology. According to Katherine Boury, Seattle Goodwill’s Communications Manager, the program is heavily used and growing in popularity. “Last year we had students from 132 countries that spoke 99 languages,” Boury said. ”And, 37% of Goodwill students are immigrants and refugees.”
The VESOL program goes beyond providing English and technology training, too. After students complete the program, Goodwill helps place them in fitting employment roles. “We are hoping to help place VESOL students in entry level positions with employers that will help them practice and enhance their English skills, so they can advance and be promoted,” Boury said. As part of its digital equity effort, Goodwill’s goal is to find employment for at least 67 students who complete their VESOL program.
When asked about who is being left behind by the digital divide, Boury said: “Low income, working people, and communities of color are being left behind. It matters because in today’s environment you need to have access to technology for so much—it is not only being able to apply for a job, but it is also being able to set up a doctor’s appointment or setting up a conference for your child. When people have these skills it allows them to support their family better and the stronger families are then the stronger our community as a whole is. We really appreciate Comcast understanding this need and supporting the Internet Essentials program.”