Victoria Morrell was looking to rejoin the workforce last year, but she had some reservations.
A teacher for many years, Morrell knew her skills were in demand, but she didn’t feel confident using the devices and software the profession requires today.
“Technology has gone so quickly from the time I was using it and teaching,” Morrell, who is 73, said. “It’s, like, exploded.”
Advancements in internet technology — for everything from online job applications and virtual interviews to communication platforms and remote-work tools — kept the economy running during the pandemic.
But the faster things changed, the more people have been excluded from economic opportunities, like Morrell. The skills and devices necessary to participate in the modern economy remain out of reach for many.
In a recent study, researchers with the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that workers with computers and broadband internet at home are more likely to participate in the labor force than those without that level of access. Broadband connectivity also correlates to higher levels of household income, studies have shown.
“If you don’t have internet, you’re really cut off from a lot of job opportunities,” said Andrew Flowers, a labor economist with Appcast, a company that helps employers target their online job ads.
[RELATED: CT gets $5.7 million to plan broadband deployment and adoption]
More than 20% of Connecticut residents lack high-speed internet access. Within the next five years, the state expects to receive more than $140 million in federal funds to expand broadband infrastructure.
But available and affordable broadband only addresses part of the problem, local leaders and policymakers say. In order to adapt to the new economy, new internet users need computers — and they need instruction and support.
According to a 2020 report from the National Skills Coalition, more than 30% of workers lacked the “foundational digital skills” needed for many of today’s jobs. Nearly every touchpoint in the modern economy — from shopping to banking, filing taxes, paying rent and utility bills, getting a driver’s license, seeking health care and applying for any public services — requires online savvy.
Morrell said for the first time in her life she wasn’t feeling confident about even being able to take care of basic needs like checking her health chart or working with the Social Security Administration. So she called the Hamden Public Library to see if anyone could help.
She was in luck.
A computer of one’s own
Hamden Public Library was one of four library systems in Connecticut to receive a $100,000 grant to pilot a program last year known as “digital navigators.” The money came from funds granted to the Connecticut State Library by the Institute of Museums and Library Services via the American Rescue Plan Act.
The funding paid for dedicated staff members who meet one-on-one with patrons requesting technological assistance. It also covered the cost of new laptop computers, which were given out to library users who signed up for the program. Over the course of the 11-month pilot, the four ARPA-funded library programs distributed 350 laptops and tablets and held 850 appointments.
At her first appointment, Morrell planned to ask the library’s digital navigators for help using an iPad she’d borrowed from a friend. They quickly changed her mind, explaining that she needed her own dedicated computer, with space to save documents and download the programs she’d need for work. They sent her home that day with a new Lenovo laptop. Morrell said it felt “like Christmas.”
Morrell returned for hourly appointments every week for a few months, completing tutorials and practicing on her own at home between sessions. By the fall, she was teaching once again, leading remote classes in English to speakers of other languages.
Melissa Canham-Clyne, director of the Hamden Public Library, said the top reason library clients have sought assistance from the digital navigators program was to learn how to search for job opportunities online. Online banking and telehealth were the next two most common reasons.
“This is all about building a stronger thriving economy by actually giving people the means and the tools that they need to participate,” Canham-Clyne said.
Hamden’s staff also helped Mary Sease, a local resident in her late 50s, who was frustrated with the job search process. After meeting one of the digital navigators at Hamden’s Keefe Community Center, Sease called the library to make sure the program — and the offer of a free, new laptop computer — was real.
Sease began meeting weekly with a digital navigator, who helped her update her resume and connect with online career coaches. “Instead of going to Best Buy, the Geek Squad, here they are right here,” she said. “They’re so helpful.”
Soon, she had landed a semi-remote job conducting outreach for a public health organization. “I’m giving it back,” Sease said. “That’s kind of how I look at it. I’m out there giving something back to the community.”
Canham-Clyne said before Hamden launched the digital navigators program, reference librarians were fielding a growing volume of inquiries related to internet technology. The desk was frequently helping people fill out rental applications, make appointments with the Department of Motor Vehicles, file taxes, even sign up for reduced-price home internet service through the Affordable Connectivity Program.
While many residents have mobile internet access, the forms can be difficult to complete on a smartphone — particularly for individuals who are already feel uncomfortable using the device.
And patrons had myriad security questions about setting up email accounts, entering their bank or credit card information, receiving text messages from unknown numbers, or getting inundated with spam. It is common for the same people to return again and again to the reference desk, seeking technical assistance.
“There’s just such a great need,” Canham-Clyne said. “Reference librarians are still a really important part, and they’re not going to go away, but digital navigation is a whole different thing. What we’re looking for is to have both.”
Meeting people where they are
Several Connecticut towns that did not receive pilot funding decided the need was so great, they’d start programs of their own. The nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance offers a digital navigators framework for community organizations, and library staff around the state have been calling each other for advice and tips as their initiatives get going.
Elaine Braithwaite, Bridgeport’s city librarian, worked with corporate sponsors to obtain hundreds of laptops, tablets and Wifi hotspots, which the library is distributing through its digital navigator program, launched in October. Braithwaite is also partnering with several local nonprofit groups to help get the word out.
She said Bridgeport library staff work one-on-one with as many as 20 residents daily on digital skills instruction. That includes helping many individuals set up email accounts for the first time. “At least once a day, someone’s at that level where they don’t even have an email address and they need assistance,” Braithwaite said.
In New London, library director Madhu Bajaj Gupta got funding from the city to purchase 10 laptops for the library and to hire a part-time digital navigator, who started in November. The program can’t afford to give out devices, but staff have helped patrons find low-cost options through resources like PCs for People.
Gupta said because the Public Library of New London serves a large immigrant population as well as many residents who work multiple jobs, she’d use the first weeks of the program to get a sense of how best to meet residents’ needs. For example, Gupta said, she’s curious what time of day clients would typically seek appointments and whether there would be interest in holding sessions at a community center or other offsite location.
The key, Gupta and many library leaders said, is meeting people where they are.
“With technology changing, the times changing, libraries try to work with the community and provide resources as needed,” Gupta said. “Libraries have evolved, and they will keep evolving.”
Infrastructure without equity
The digital navigator pilot grants have now been used up, and participating library systems are seeking other funding from public and private sources to keep the service going. In Hamden, Canham-Clyne said she has received “stopgap” funds from the library’s board while she works with city and federal leaders to secure longer-term financial support.
Many proponents of the digital navigators model are hoping to tap some of the billions of dollars in federal funds slated for the nationwide expansion of broadband internet access.
Last year, Connecticut was approved for $43 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to support broadband infrastructure plans and another potential $100 million under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for similar projects. Both initiatives call for “equitable” deployment of the Digital Age’s fundamental utility, but plans for how to achieve that are still in the works.
The Connecticut Libraries and Partners for Digital Equity, an alliance of libraries and community organizations, recently submitted comments to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, highlighting ways they think equity should be built into the department’s high-speed internet infrastructure projects. They said state leaders need to make affordable internet service and computers readily available to residents, as well as to provide support for people still developing internet skills — many of whom are still wary of the entities that provide it.
“A broadband infrastructure buildout unaccompanied by a comprehensive digital inclusion program will fail to achieve the levels of adoption by underserved residents that are understood to lead to significant social and economic change,” the comments read. “Equity cannot be achieved with infrastructure alone.”
Advocates also raise concerns that Gov. Ned Lamont’s stated goal of an “all-digital state government” could limit access to government services for many who need them, from booking DMV appointments to applying for professional licenses or public assistance.
A marquee component of the governor’s workforce development efforts — the state’s response to challenges businesses have faced finding skilled workers in recent years — is a $70 million suite of short-term career training programs known as CareerConneCT. In order to access it, users must register in the program’s online portal.
Kelli Vallieres, the state’s chief workforce officer, said anyone without a computer or internet access can visit one of Connecticut’s American Job Centers or various community organizations or libraries to register. “It’s super easy — it’s your name, your ZIP code, and a couple of drop down questions on who you are, and you’re in the portal,” she said.
But many of the portal’s training programs have an online component.
“That’s great if you have a device and strong Wi-Fi,” said Amy Peltier, director of East Hartford Works!, a city-run workforce training service. But many of the recent high school graduates Peltier works with lack the right devices for professional work — often because they had to turn in their school computers upon graduation.
It can be overly complicated to try to attend virtual classes, read digital textbooks or take quizzes and tests on a mobile device. Shared computers are available at job centers, but their hours are limited, and some require scheduling an appointment.
“It’s not as easily accessible as you might think,” Peltier said.
East Hartford was one of the four cities that received a digital navigators pilot grant, and Peltier said being able to refer clients for free computers and help at the library made her organization’s job training programs more effective. Digital devices and skills are “kind of like the work boots of the 21st century,” she said.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Andre O’Connor, a digital navigator at the Bridgeport Public Library, helped 42-year-old Erik Murphy set up a new laptop he planned to use for an 8-month course in billing and coding at Housatonic Community College. Murphy said he expects to come back to the library again for further instruction.
O’Connor, who has been helping adults with technology ever since his fifth-grade teacher asked for assistance with the classroom’s computer, said it’s rewarding to see clients go from learning how to use the internet to using the internet to learn.
“It’s pretty cool to know that these people used to be petrified of a computer or petrified of a tablet, and now it’s like an extension for them… it’s allowing them to do more,” he said. “You’ve given them just a little nudge, and then they just take off with it.”