A woman sits in front of a laptop and enrolls in the Affordable Connectivity Program.
A local resident enrolls in the Affordable Connectivity Program at Morningstar Missionary Baptist Church during a KC Digital Drive event. (KC Digital Drive)

In Kansas City and across the country, there aren’t enough workers to fill middle-skills jobs, which require at least a high school diploma but not a four-year degree. 

According to the latest data available from the National Skills Coalition, in 2018, 52% of U.S. jobs require skills training beyond high school. But only 43% of America’s workers have had access to the training necessary to qualify for these careers.

In Missouri, 53% of jobs qualify as middle-skilled, yet only 46% of Missouri’s workers have had access to the training. In Kansas, the numbers are similar: 54% of jobs are middle-skilled, but only 44% have access to training. 

KC Digital Drive is working to address this issue with this month’s launch of KC Goes Tech, a microgrant program that will award 10 organizations $2,000 each to increase digital training. Half of the grant — $1,000 — is a stipend to help someone from the organization or the community they work with to become a trainer. That person will join a cohort and deliver digital literacy training to the organization’s clientele. 

Any client-serving organization with clients who might benefit from digital literacy training and skills development but  may need help with access to a device and/or connectivity is encouraged to apply.

KC Digital Drive is a nonprofit working to address technology access across the Kansas City region. 

Leslie Scott, the group’s digital inclusion program manager, said there has been an expansion of middle-skills jobs that require digital knowledge. Workers in this category typically hold jobs in the clerical, sales, construction, repair, hospitality/leisure and transportation/material moving industries, according to the Georgetown Public Policy Institute

“We hear a lot about how difficult it is for employers to find qualified employees, we hear a lot about how difficult it is for low-skilled workers to, you know, to make ends meet,” Scott said.

The digital divide in Kansas City

KC Digital Drive aims to make Kansas City a digital leader by closing the digital divide and driving innovation and inclusion. 

“Equity is not a unique problem to the digital world,” said Aaron Deacon, the managing director  of KC Digital Drive. “We have gaps in places just in the world generally. And if we’re not careful about how we implement or adopt them, digital spaces make those worse, because technology really just accelerates whatever we’re already doing.”

LEANLAB Education, a Kansas City nonprofit, found that 11% of households in Kansas City, Missouri, do not have internet access. Eight percent of households are without a computer. 

These digital inequities are also skewed along race, class and location. Lack of internet access is concentrated in neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue, which disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income families, according to the data. 

Age also plays a role in this divide. 

“Older adults have some of the lowest adoption rates for the internet and that’s particularly more severe for Black and brown older adults,” said Scott. “They’re not digital natives and maybe they feel like they’re just too old to learn or the tools and resources out there just don’t speak to their learning needs. … They need materials and approaches that are unique.”

PCs for People has seen firsthand how impactful teaching these digital skills can be on a person’s life. 

“If you just start with how to apply for a job, there are very few places anymore that even accept applications that aren’t online,” said Tom Esselman, the chief executive officer of the PCs for People KC, the local chapter of a national nonprofit that provides low-income households with low-cost refurbished computers and high-speed 4G LTE internet service solutions starting at $15 per month (or free with the Affordable Connectivity Program).

Other common digital expectations from employers can include familiarity with email, calendars, Zoom, Microsoft Office or Google Workspace. PCs for People offers free classes to teach most of these skills. 

You can at least make an indirect correlation between the fact that there’s all these basic jobs that are going unfilled, and they all require access to some level of digital competency, and you can make a correlation between those unfilled jobs and the number of people who just haven’t developed the skills or don’t have access to the technology that they need,” Esselman said.

Two customers take a picture with their low-cost device that they received from PCs for People.
Two customers after receiving a low-cost device from PCs for People. (PCs for People)

PCs for People is a longtime partner of KC Digital Drive and a member of the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion. PCs for People will provide devices to those who go through the training for KC Goes Tech.

In the past, PCs for People partnered with UPS to provide laptops and personnel for UPS’ hiring fair. PCs for People would also provide staff and volunteers to help the applicants.

“Nine times out of 10, they come in and they see the sign that says online resumes only and they just have these defeated looks on their face,” Esselman said. Staff and volunteers would walk them through how to create a resume online, after which attendants would get interviewed on the spot. Many would walk out with a new job. 

“Most of them have tears in their eyes. They’re so overjoyed that they were able to get some help getting the job, because without the resume, they weren’t even able to get to the interview.”

The digital skills training program 

The KC Goes Tech program is based on the successful Tech Goes Home program founded in Boston in 1999 and expanded into Chattanooga, Tennessee, by one of KC Digital Drive’s peer organizations.

“What we’re looking to do is give some grants to organizations to kind of kick-start this process, but then figure out the best way to work with all of our existing providers and start to grow the ecosystem and provide a little bit more of a holistic and systematic viewpoint to how we coordinate our digital literacy and inclusion resources,” said Deacon, the managing director  of KC Digital Drive. 

“Through that work, we also hope to be able to get a better view on where some of the gaps are, where maybe some of the existing providers could expand their work or expand their reach, or maybe we need new capacity to develop,” he said.

The long-term goals of the program also include helping others expand their aspirations. 

“It’s about helping people get into the digital economy, and building them up as they go and seeing where they want to end up,” said Scott, with KC Digital Drive. 

The organization welcomes applications from organizations that currently offer some level of digital training or those that do not but would like to start. Priorities for microgrants include service to seniors and older adults, working with community health workers, churches and faith-based communities, and school-based communities. 

The deadline to apply is Aug.12 by 5 p.m.

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MILI MANSARAY is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.