Study: Ex­pand dig­i­tal fo­cus in job train­ing

Austin ranks sev­enth among U.S. metro ar­eas in dig­i­tal­iza­tion of jobs.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Dan Zehr dzehr@states­

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 en­trylevel 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 high­skill 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.”


Bladimira Martinez takes notes while her daugh­ter and busi­ness as­so­ciate, Yesse­nia Ramirez, con­ducts busi­ness on a com­puter in late Septem­ber in Pflugerville.

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