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Technology is advancing — and leaving some of Connecticut's workforce behind

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Industries are eager to use new technology. Some employees can't keep up.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Erica Phillips to discuss her article, “Tech advances leaving many in CT locked out of jobs and economy,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Erica. You say Connecticut has launched an ambitious program to make broadband access available to all parts of the state. But you also say that local officials feel that this is just part of the problem. And you give the example of Victoria Morrell. Can you just tell us a little bit about what's happening with Victoria?

EP: Yeah, I'd love to start with Victoria. She's a great example. So at the federal level, there's tens of billions of dollars going into broadband access, there's the effort that really wants to get broadband for everyone. But just having broadband doesn't solve connectivity problems, if you think about just everything that you need to know in order to use the internet these days.

And so Victoria is a woman I talked to in Hamden, Connecticut. She was a teacher for many years, she was no longer in the workforce, but she's in her 70s. And she wanted to get back in the workforce, she saw a need for teachers and she wanted to help. And she was really overwhelmed with everything that she felt like she would need to learn in order to do that. So if you think about it, it's not just Zoom, teachers need all these kinds of other resources.

She did ultimately end up teaching English as a Second Language classes to adult students, virtually, but in the process to get there and to become comfortable on a computer, she didn't own her own computer. So she had to get a computer, she had to get comfortable on that computer. She had to download the right programs, learn how to use them, learn how to communicate with all this technology that initially she felt had sort of passed her by.

WSHU: How did she go about doing that?

EP: Yeah. And I do want to say the reason why her story is important is there are actually a lot of people like Victoria of all ages, it's not just people in their 70s. She's a potential part of the workforce that wasn't feeling comfortable working. And right now, you know, if you're an economy reporter, like me, but probably if you're an average Joe, like anyone out there, you've heard businesses, governments talking about these workforce issues that they're having, they can't find people to work for them, they can't find skilled people.

And so Victoria is an example of someone who is skilled, willing, wants to work and couldn't figure out how to learn today's new technology. So I will tell you what she did. She's a resourceful person, she realized, you know, she just didn't feel quite confident. And she said, how can I develop the confidence to open up a computer and start tackling all this stuff that I need to learn? So she called the library, and her local library in Hamden just happened to be running a pilot program.

There are a few libraries in Connecticut that are doing this, where they have a person on staff who will help people with technology issues. And not only that, they were actually distributing free laptops as well to people who signed up for this program. Now, the laptops have run out in the programs, pilot program funding has run out. But a lot of these libraries immediately saw the value of this program, that there was tons of demand for the people they were helping. And so there are efforts right now to try to get that funding going forward, and continuing those steps.

WSHU: You say the program had some computers that they were actually giving it to people who needed them initially, right? So it wasn't just teaching them the skills, but some people like Victoria didn't even have a laptop.

EP: And this is another sort of misconception, I think, as the digital world is advancing, as the economy is becoming really digitally forward. And even the government, the state government is becoming all digital, that's been an effort of Governor Lamont. People think, well, if people don't have a laptop, everyone's at least got a smartphone. And that is true, you know, a larger percentage of people have smartphones than have laptops necessarily.

But when you really sit down and you think, okay, I have a smartphone, but I need to apply for a driver's license, I need to apply for another sort of professional license of some kind, I need to apply for a job, I need to get up to date on my skills for that job. I need to write a resume and tweak my resume and I need a career counselor who might push me in some directions that I might not have thought of.

The list goes on and on. If you're thinking about the process for doing this or just participating in the economy, at the most basic level, doing it on a smartphone is, quite frankly, really challenging. And I talked to a workforce development group in East Hartford, who kind of laid this out for me and really opened my eyes like, yeah, actually, you know, students are graduating from high school, they've got that high school diploma, but they had to turn their computer back in. So what do you do about trying to train those folks with skills to get into even just an initial job and to grow from there? They in most cases probably do need a computer.

WSHU: And almost all job applications now have to be done online.

EP: Yeah.

WSHU: And for the towns that weren't taking part in this pilot program, how do people go about this in all those other communities that didn't have access to this fund that was created?

EP: Yeah. So it's not like there's a total lack of resources. There are federal locations called American Job Centers, a lot of people are aware of these places that have computers available to people. You can go if you need to do your resume, training, apply for jobs, you can use their computers. Of course, their hours are limited, sometimes you have to make an appointment. So it's a little bit more challenging. That is available.

There are community organizations that offer this and of course, libraries all over the state, you can certainly go in and use their computers. And they have reference librarians, you know, they're not the specialized digital navigators that this program was providing. But reference librarians all over the state are certainly answering tons of these questions these days. So that's part of the reason why they think they need a separate job for this. But I did want to also say, a couple of towns, it was so clear to them, the need that this digital navigators program was responding to that they said, you know what, we're just going to figure out a way to start the program ourselves. Bridgeport, New London has done it.

But the Bridgeport one is interesting. Elaine, the city librarian there, found corporate sponsors that funded devices for this program. So they're able to hand out devices. And she's got a staff of several, I'm trying to remember how many, but several digital applicators at libraries all over the city. They meet with, she said an average of about 20 people per day. And these are people that are at a skill level from everything from, they're setting up an email address for the first time, she said at least once a day, they get someone who doesn't even have an email address, to like Erik Murphy, who you mentioned, who is you know, in his 40s, ready to take on a training program at Housatonic community college that he's going to do. And he just needs to get up to speed and get that skills assessment and get ready for school. And so he needed the laptop and instruction and how to use it for that.

WSHU: And he was able to do it through the Bridgeport library.

EP: Yeah, we talked to him on his very first day. So I don't have an update on where he's at with that. But there was a lot of potential there and certainly a service that he was taking advantage of.

WSHU: There are a few parts of Connecticut where there's actually no broadband access, the northwest corner, I believe, is one.

EP: This is another sort of big project for the state. So certainly rural areas in the northwest corner. Also a lot of sort of block to block in urban areas, in multifamily buildings, things like that, where the wires just haven't made that last few feet or a few yards. And you know, they might have internet access, but it's not very high speed.

WSHU: Yeah. What struck me when I was looking at the map was Hartford, the Hartford area. I would have thought the penetration of broadband would have been much more universal in a place like Hartford.

EP: Certainly, yeah. And again, I mean, the way broadband has been built out to date has been driven by the companies who offer broadband. So they're gonna do the thing that costs them the least, and makes them the most. And so in any situation, I mean, you see a lot of businesses that have quote unquote deserts, grocery store deserts and things like that, where there are just certain areas where it doesn't necessarily make a good business case to be there offering your service.

But you do really have a lot of momentum from the federal government right now, and certainly in Connecticut as well, to be extending, they're calling it broadband, for all to really get the service absolutely everywhere. It's almost like they're acknowledging this is as important as electricity. I mean, this is the basic utility of the 21st century.

WSHU: And also the cost is subsidized to certain income levels.

EP: Yeah. And that's a big concern. Often people who don't have broadband access are curious about it. That's one of the first things they raise, because then people are aware that okay, I sign up for some deal and then three months from now, I'm suddenly gonna have to pay $100 a month.

There's a lot of unclear information, just a lot of uncertainty with not only just extending broadband to places, but getting people to sign up and getting people to adopt it. And so there's an education campaign on that front as well just to help people understand that better. And then also, there are certainly publicly funded programs to provide internet or to reduce costs. And some of the internet providers as well, do have programs you can sign up for that are continuously low rate. And there is some information linked to that in the article, it would probably be a little boring for me to go into.

WSHU: Bottom line here is, Connecticut is making efforts to get everyone into the digital age.

EP: That is the bottom line. And I guess what I'm trying to highlight in the story is that running wires isn't all there is to it, getting people to sign up isn't all there is to it. There is actual, you know, personal one to one instruction, and also just distributing devices as well laptops and what have you, that are really going to take this to that final phase of actual adoption.

And it's critical, because every touchpoint of the modern economy essentially requires a good understanding of the internet and the use of a device. And so in order to enable the economy, this is all very necessary to be thinking about, and policymakers are thinking about it. So it was really interesting to see it all playing out.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Fairfield County. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.