Summer event explores workforce digitalization, ‘mid-tech’ opportunity

Digital technology has revolutionized the way we exist as consumers. It’s no longer necessary to leave the house to get groceries, grab a new pair of shoes, or buy a new house.

This same trend has had sweeping implications for the other end of the transaction, too, but this wave of digital innovation isn’t limited to business-to-consumer trades. These days, no industry has been left untouched, and the digitalization of the American workforce has emerged as a formidable challenge, with plenty of opportunity along the way.

The Ohio State University Center for Operational Excellence joined three other Ohio State and Fisher College of Business centers this month to tackle this topic in the second of a two-part summer session on the so-called digital economy. At the session, co-hosted with the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, National Center for the Middle Market, and Risk Institute, Brookings Institution researcher Mark Muro (pictured above, left) presented findings from an illuminating report the think tank released last year tracking how technology is becoming a bigger part of the jobs we do.

“Digitalization is the fundamental source of value in our period in history,” Muro told a crowd of nearly 150 business leaders.

The data from Brookings bear that out. The organization classified hundreds of jobs in to low-, medium-, and high-digital skill levels on a scale of 1 to 100, based on how much knowledge of and interaction with computers and electronics is required. Your average software developer these days is a 94, while a personal healthcare aide would score below 20. In tracking changes from 2002 to 2016, Brookings researchers found that while about half of the jobs in Columbus that it rated required little digital skill at the beginning of the decade, that share has dropped below one-third in recent years. And while only one in 20 jobs required strong digital skills in 2002, that’s up to one in four.

“It’s getting much harder to find a job if you don’t know your way around basic computer equipment,” said Muro, a senior fellow in Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program.

Indeed, one in six working-age Americans can’t use e-mail, web search, or other basic online tools. Couple that with the fact that nearly half of all jobs in the Columbus area require a medium level of digital skill, and an imbalance emerges.

Breaking it down

Muro dissected his findings with a multi-industry panel at the session, which included representatives from COE members Honda of America Manufacturing and Mount Carmel Health System, as well as leaders from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and Columbia Gas of Ohio owner NiSource. At all of these organizations, this workforce digitization wave is intersecting with a mix of demographic factors and broader industry trends. At Honda, for example, a sizeable crop of Baby Boomers is poised to retire, while the vehicles rolling off the line get more tech-heavy with each new model.

“As production changes and there’s more digital technology in our products, it challenges our engineers’ IT skills,” said panelist Scot McLemore, Honda North America’s manager of talent acquisition and development.

Honda has been proactive with the digitalization trend, moving in 2014 to open a Technical Training Center with classrooms and robotics to help cultivate skills of emerging importance in employees. In a similar vein, NiSource has invested in training that’s tailored for a digital age, a selling point for younger employees and, sometimes, a harder sell for veteran workers.

“Adults still want to know why,” said panelist John Penziol, NiSource’s user experience strategy lead.

The “soft” side of digitalization, whether that’s communicating changes to workers or developing new problem-solving skills while working with technology, is a critical element to this new frontier, particularly in an industry like healthcare. At Mount Carmel, it’s a question of balancing high-quality, high-stakes personal touch with constant new digital innovations. As a result, the nationwide digital score for registered nurses moved from the low end of the middle digitalization level to the high end over that 14-year gap tracked in the Brookings research.

“As leaders influencing people, we need to grow into the technology aspect and the people aspect,” said Michelle Leedy, director of talent management for Mount Carmel. “We need to think differently about how we get work done.”

Mid-tech opportunity

Brookings’ key recommendations for meeting the challenge of workforce digitalization include expanding and widening the high-digital IT talent pipeline — for example, creating higher-education feeder programs and exposing K-12 students to computer science — and increasing basic digital literacy, especially among underrepresented groups. One area of opportunity specifically for the Columbus region, Muro said, is what he calls “opportunity jobs,” which require medium-level digital skill but don’t require a bachelor’s degree and pay better than the national mean annual wage; this includes executive assistants and industrial mechanics, for example.

“These opportunity jobs are an on-ramp to IT,” Muro said. “It’s very important that people in the workforce without a four-year degree get into these occupations.”

Regardless of the solutions at hand, said McLemore of Honda, they can’t happen in a vacuum.

“It’s important that industry, education, and the government come together to figure this out,” he said.

Click here to check out Brookings’ full report, or view slides from the August session here.

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