Crunched by the Numbers: The Digital Skills Gap in the Workforce


Do you wonder how important digital literacy skills are to get and keep a middle skills job that has family-sustaining wages? A new study answers the question.

Middle-skill jobs, roughly defined as those that require more than a high school education but less than a bachelor’s degree, comprise 39% of U.S. employment. These jobs matter because they have long sustained a middle-class lifestyle for millions of Americans, and because they’re increasingly pressured by changes to the economy. Two-thirds of Americans don’t have a college degree, and these jobs represent important career opportunities for them.

A study of job postings by Burning Glass Technologies found that middle-skill jobs that require digital skills are outpacing those that do not in a wide range of ways:

  • Nearly eight in 10 middle-skill jobs require digital skills. Spreadsheet and word processing proficiencies have become a baseline requirement for the majority of middle-skill opportunities (78%).
  • Digitally intensive middle-skill occupations are growing faster than other middle-skill jobs. Digitally intensive jobs have grown 2.5 times more rapidly than middle-skill jobs that do not require spreadsheets, word processing, or other digital skills (between 2003 and 2013, 4.7% growth for digitally intensive jobs compared to 1.9% growth for other positions).
  • Digitally intensive middle-skill jobs pay more than middle-skill jobs that do not require a digital component. Digitally intensive middle-skill occupations offer 18% higher wages on average: $23.76 per hour compared to $20.14 per hour for all other middle-skill jobs.


Below is an infographic that you may wish to share with teachers and adult learners.

What do you see as the implications of these findings for what is taught in your program or those that you work with?


Infographic showing the importance of digital skills

David J. Rosen

Technology and Learning, and Program Management CoPs Moderator





Thank you for sharing this infographic with the Career Pathways community.  While I think these numbers will only continue to grow, what I struggle with when presented with these kinds of statistics is our lack of understanding about what is meant by "digital skills".  As "digital natives" age into the workforce, can we expect that they will have the needed skills, just by virtue of "growing up digital"?  If we can't assume as much, I think we need to start with a clearer picture of what we mean by these skills.  Assuming equal levels of access to technology - which is not always a fair assumption - what are the hard skills that we need to be teaching to support learners acquiring higher order digital skills for current middle skill jobs?  I would really like to see some agreement on what we're referring to when we use the term digital skills, in today's technology terms.  Does anyone know if such a resource exists?


Mike Cruse  

Career Pathways Moderator



Hello Mike,

You wrote: "What are the hard skills that we need to be teaching to support learners acquiring higher order digital skills for current middle skill jobs?"

Interesting question. "Digital skills" or "digital literacy skills" has evolved. At first it referred only to computer skills, then to computer and Internet skills, now to skills with computers, the Internet and portable digital devices (including smartphones, tablets, and "phablets" -- small tablets with phones). Part of the problem in defining the skill set is that the technology changes, requiring new or additional skills. These basic digital skills are baseline for all adults in the U.S.

Now, party because of the PIAAC Survey of Adult Skills, there has been another shift -- a big one -- in the definition of digital skills.These skills are referred to as Problem Solving in Technology Rich Environments (PSTRE) and they have been measured in the U.S. and nearly thirty other OECD countries. They assume basic computer digital skills and test the next level up, problem solving skills in a world that assumes the availability of computers. These skills, often work-related, require understanding (and in the higher levels, formulating) the problem, choosing among several given digital tools for solving it, using the tools in multiple steps or operations to solve the problem, and assessing your solution. These are tough, and yet, apparently what the world of work in developed countries now requires, at least in the better-paying jobs. Although you can look at sample items from the SAS from the PIAAC Gateway website now, sometime in early August it should be possible to take the assessment online, for a fee (see reference below). I hope that every teacher who wishes to, will have the opportunity to take it, so they will know first-hand what these skills are.

The U,S, Performance on the PIAAC SAS was abysmal. We did poorly in literacy, numeracy and PSTRE, near or at the bottom in all three domains. In PSTRE skills, older American adults did slightly better than younger ones, so we cannot assume that "digital natives", people who have grown up with computers, have technology environment problem-solving skills.

For a clear picture of what basic digital literacy skills are, try the free Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment.

For a list of digital literacy assessments and (mostly free) instruction websites try the Computer and digital Literacy page on the Literacy List.

For further information on PIAAC PSTRE:

David J, Rosen


David, and Others -  

Thank you for posting these resources.  I agree with you that we can't assume that "digital natives" have technology environment problem-solving skills.  I am now using the Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment with adult consumers in vocational rehabilitation, and find it a good baseline measure of their skill sets for many office and clerical jobs.  While it is a great  tool for assessing knowledge of software packages and internet navigation skills, I haven't found equally high quality resources for evaluating hardware and networking skills.  These are also "in demand" digital skills, which employers are seeking, and which middle skill careers will likely require some basic knowledge of in the future.  Do you consider these non-software specific assessments to be an important part of what we're talking about when we talk about digital skills?  




Hi Mike,

For assessment of knowledge of computer hardware skills you might look at Teknimedia's Total Tekassess This is a commercial product, but I believe that you can contact them to arrange a demo.  I am not sure I understand what you mean by Networking skills -- are you referring to occupational training in installing, managing, maintaining and/or supporting computer networks? That makes me wonder if by hardware knowledge you meant installing, managing, maintaining and/or supporting hardware. If so, I am not sure that Tekassess addresses those skills. Perhaps you can clarify what you are looking for and, if it is an assessment of skills typically taught in occupational training, perhaps someone else will have  suggestions for you.

David J. Rosen

Hi, David -

Yes, I was referring to "installing, managing, maintaining and/or supporting computer networks", when I used the term networking, and similarly for hardware.  Totaltekassess appears to be focused on software and internet navigation skills, which are important, but only a small part of what I believe makes up digital skills for many mid skill careers.  Again, this is where I wish we had more information from these types of statistics on what is meant by "digital skills".  


Here's how the Huffington Post summed up the Burning Glass study in their article called Knowing Excel -- Yes, Microsoft Excel -- Is Crucial To Making More Money

"Forget learning how to code. The tech skills required to get out of the low-wage workforce are actually a lot simpler. Knowing how to use basic software like Microsoft Excel and Word, it seems, are critical to earning a living wage these days, according to a new analysis of the labor market.

Understanding spreadsheet and word-processing software is a baseline requirement in nearly 80 percent of all middle-skill job openings, according to the report, first discovered by Lauren Weber at the Wall Street Journal"

I think this study confirms adult education's place in building proficiency in the software programs used in education and the workforce.

(  No login rant today -- *thanks* -  clicking "read more" gets me to the home page so I can  log in and go to the discussion and answer   -- and when I've got two monitors, it's even easier!  :) :))   

Our "Math literacy" course includes some basic Excel.   It had included enough to be a real stress so they backed off a little, and yesterday's entering of the quadratic formula was a tad stressful for some ... but I tell them that in a job interview they will be able to say, "Yes, I've done some work with Excel and yes, I can put Excel spreadsheets into Word files" and  it matters. 

Now, for 'returning' students, some are still grumbling "I signed up for a Math class, not a computer class!!!"  but IMHO ... learning to "drive" Excel is a bit like learning to drive a car -- it opens up a *lot* of possibilities. 

I confess that I also like the dig "forget learning to code," since I think that's been rather overblown... tho' I need to get back to learning code now ;) 

So, once again, I clicked on the 'click here to log in" that sends me to a page that says "oh, by the way, you're not logged in so you can't comment. Wasn't that fun?"  And I find the place on that page to actually log in, wait for it to load (tho' since I've got more memory it's not quite as tediousnow), and get to the home page -- but hey! I was smart enough to do it in a separate window, so I didn't think I would have to click and click and click to get *back* to the original comment and reload it and *then* finally make a comment. 

Well, except this time it still didn't have a "comment" option.   It took five or six more clicks (perhaps because I "logged into the learning portal" which I had thought had been designed to log into the community and the portal but why on *earth* would something be done efficiently?!?!?)   and wow!!! I can finally comment!!! 

Once again, if anybody out there wonders why there isn't more participatino, I would suggest that this might be a reason.   

My real comment:

Any so-called "research" that doesn't define its terms but just has a cute infographic is nice for them -- bet a grant paid for it -- but since I have absolutely no idea what they're talking about when they say "digital" I figure its purpose is so people can use it to justify *their* requests for grant funding for whatever their projects are, but it's not useful at all to me as far as figuring out what to make sure students know how to do... 

(Granted, the login process always puts me in a foul frame...) 


Hello Susan,
Sorry to hear you have been having such difficulty with the LINCS system, at least I think that's what you were commenting on. I don't know if you were trying to reply from an email you received but, if so, in the future you might find it less frustrating to just go to the LINCS community web page, , log in there, then select "Groups" from the blue menu strip, then select the group in which the post appeared, and then reply to the particular post. That's quite a few steps, I would agree, but you may find that it is less frustrating.

I wonder if you saw in the page whose link I posted -- with the Infographic -- a link to the actual research that the infographic was based on and, if so, if you had a chance to look at that report. The research report will be found at

David J. Rosen


Given my Systems perspective, I see the relationships and connections between and among virtually all of the communities. That results in my also seeing the differentiations. 

So, how do any of you see the point(s) at which Adult English Language Acquisition ends/overlaps/fits with ABE, and with Pathways to careers and college?

If English learning doesn't prepare our adult audiences for the rest of their journey to good jobs and good wages, then we have failed to prepare them to "fish." 

On another note, I often feel like Susan: there is too much money spent on useless "re-research" (too often just a restatement of what we already know), and not nearly enough money focussed on delivery of service to actual people in need. 


Arthur Rubin


I've enjoyed reading through the previously posted comments, which triggered a few thoughts:

First, I agree that our conceptualization of "digital literacy" has shifted. I think that, perhaps, what we've considered "digital" is really technological or computer literacy. I've been doing some reading lately that suggests the inclusion of PSTRE-like skills as a more comprehensive way to think about digital literacy. Eshet-Alkalai (2004) describes these as “technical, cognitive, and sociological skills in order to perform tasks and solve problems in digital environments” (p. 93), breaking them down as follows:

  • Photo-visual literacy, “the art of reading visual representations” (p. 94)
  • Reproduction literacy, “the art of creative recycling of existing materials” (p. 97)
  • Branching literacy, “use of hypermedia and non-linear thinking” (p. 98)
  • Information literacy, “the art of skepticism” (p. 100)
  • Socio-emotional literacy, collaborative learning and sharing in online venues (p. 101)

It matters how we define things because we have to know what we are teaching. Arthur Rubin asks about the integration amongst the proficiencies English language learners must possess to be able to "fish".  I think the answer is not what to teach, but how.  The skills listed above need to be integrated into language instruction and perhaps contextualized within the language of career pathways.  This makes both the context and the means of instruction relevant - best preparing learners for whatever comes next. Embedding digital literacy skills into content instructions, I think, has the added potential of helping learners see how they are transferable from one situation to the next. 

Kop, Fournier & Mak (2011) call this an “inner resilience”. It can shield learners from experiencing every new technological requirement/development as disruptive. Because we can't control the pace of change, I think to adequately teach "to fish" (to continue the metaphor) policy, PD, and instructional strategy need to prioritize this approach. It will likely take some research to do this well.

Jen Vanek

Eshet-Alkalai, Y. (2004). Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework for Survival Skills in the Digital era. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia13(1), 93–106. Retrieved from

Kop, R., Fournier, H., & Mak, J. S. F. (2011). A pedagogy of abundance or a pedagogy to support human beings? Participant support on massive open online courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(7). Retrieved from


Jen, and Others -

This comment from your post really resonates with me, "Embedding digital literacy skills into content instructions, I think, has the added potential of helping learners see how they are transferable from one situation to the next".  

I agree that this is hugely important for all learners.  In secondary education, students are less involved in technology-specific classes than they were a decade ago.  The exception is courses in computer programming and networking.  Instead, teachers are increasingly teaching about software and other technologies in the context of academic instruction within subject areas.  

Does anyone have examples of where adult learners are acquiring new digital skills within the context of academic instruction?  




I was part of a ProjectIDEAL study group that investigated promising practices in online distance learning for adults. We interviewed several teachers who had been identified by state DL leadership as providing noteworthy instruction.  The report is published on the ProjectIDEAL website:

Sharon (she self-identifies in the report, so I think OK to name her here) integrates technology creatively as she teaches vocational ESL in a hybrid class.  See page 29 of the report for specific examples.


Hi Mike and others,

There are quite a few posts (now 100!) that teachers and professional developers have shared on Tech Tips for Teachers and that make up an index by subject area. I think you will see even with those activities where social media tools (as opposed to MS Office) are used for teaching and learning, students get practice improving their digital literacy skills in the context of academic instruction. 

And since we have been discussing Excel, here are links to one such activity for beginners and another for those more advanced

know there are many other examples out there, so please share. 

Steve Quann

World Education, Inc


I work mainly with adults that are pre-GED.  In Maryland the term is "Adult Basic Skills."  There are many helpful posts, but I found the July 24th post by Steve a great resources.  The post links the reader to "Tech Tips for Teachers."  This tips are arranged by subjects.  There is so much information I don't have time to open every link.  I'm sure I miss other helpful posts, but I wanted to highlight this one because it has so many resources.

Hello Debby and others,

Glad you find Tech Tips for Teachers a helpful resource. So do I. One way to approach learning about new online tools, as a teacher or program manager, is to skim each new Tech Tips for Teachers blog article, or other articles you may find, and then save those that look interesting as bookmarks, in Diigo, Pinterest,, or however you prefer to save professional development resources. Another way is to take some time to think about what you want to do with your students, or what your program design goal(s) might be, or other things you want to be able to do, for example, to:

  • Save and organize promising online tools
  • Add or improve a program or class online learning presence (website, online storage site, shell program etc.)
  • Automate reminders to students
  • Use online formative assessment tools as a teacher to learn, and help students learn, what they know before and after a lesson
  • Experiment with or improve a flipped learning model by finding and/or creating video presentations that students watch before class and using class time for one-on-one or small group assistance or for project-based learning or other engaging activities
  • Share computer screens in real time with distance learning or blended learning students

Then, look for online tools in online resources like Tech Tips for Teachers, and also post questions about them in the Technology and Learning CoP.

I would like to encourage other teachers and program managers here to think about this strategy, to start with a class or program design objective and then look for online tools that could help you achieve it. I would like to encourage everyone to post questions in the Technology and Learning CoP, indicating what you are trying to do -- such as some of the above objective examples -- and asking what tools T&L CoP members know about, and have used, that can help you to solve that instructional or program design objective.

I am going to create a "sticky" post in the T&L CoP that you can always easily find, called "Instructional Design Objectives and Online Tools to Help Accomplish Them" and suggest that members of this CoP use that discussion thread for this purpose. Then it will be easier for people to find and review these objectives and tools.

David J. Rosen, Moderator

Technology and Learning CoP Moderator

It's always great to find a fan of Tech Tips for Teachers! I love David's idea of sharing the connections people make between their goals and the online tools. I wanted to add in too that if there's a tool you're having trouble finding, or wondering more about how to use for your program goals, let us know and we can do a Tech Tip about it. You can e-mail me any requests at or through the "Contact Us" form on the site.

Leah Peterson
Editor, Tech Tips for Teachers
World Education