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Most folks have internet access, right? If not a desktop setup, at least a phone that can connect you to the internet. When it comes to finding a job, a phone may be enough to fill out an application at McDonald’s or Home Depot if you have a reliable internet connection.

But if a job application is more complicated, say, requiring a résumé or a CV, the process of applying by phone can range from exasperating to impossible, especially if your internet connection is sketchy.

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Sarai Preciado knows first-hand how that is. The new job she’s looking for in shipping warehouse security usually requires a résumé, and Preciado doesn’t have a laptop or desktop computer. Both are out of reach financially.

“Honestly, it is the cost of getting a computer. Even maintaining it is costly, to have to pay fees for other added applications or computer programs that you may need. It all costs money.” The internet is not something easily accessible to everyone, she says. “Especially without a job.”

When applying for work, Preciado usually goes to her local Fontana, Calif., library to use the computers there. “You use their equipment, but sometimes the Wi-Fi is slow. If the computer freezes or ends up starting again, all the work you just put in goes away.

“When I’m trying to do applications at home and I’m trying to use regular Wi-Fi, it’ll do the same thing.”

If she is working on a résumé when the signal drops, the page needs to be reloaded and the information disappears, which means starting all over again — no cutting and pasting on a phone.

“Maybe you can fill out an application — but what if your internet connection is so unreliable you can’t finish the application before the connection drops? When it picks up again, you’re back to the beginning,” says Christian Castro of Teamsters Local 856 in Southern California. “And all the while you’re typing into a tiny screen.”

Castro is Preciado’s brother. He has brought his laptop over more than once to help her apply for jobs so she can save documents in the event the Wi-Fi drops. He also helps his nieces and nephews with the same issues.

Preciado’s quest for internet access may be frustrating, but at the federal level and in many states, measures have moved forward to invest in infrastructure that would make internet connectivity more accessible.

The pandemic years have shifted the search for work onto the internet and created new ways of applying for and doing work. Someone with access to strong broadband and a printer can sit at a desk and compose a résumé to apply for jobs. A desktop or laptop may even provide opportunities to work from home.

But, like Preciado and her family, some 2.3 million Californians may have some kind of digital access but lack the high-speed capacity needed to navigate the employment landscape. Day-to-day familiarity that comes with routine computer use helps people pick up the basic skills needed to negotiate the internet, says Steven Simon. Without that experience, it can be hard for a job seeker to know how or where to begin.

Part of Simon’s mission is to teach basic computer and internet skills needed to find employment.

The job seekers Simon works with at the Worker Education and Resource Center (WERC) include those experiencing homelessness or at risk of losing housing; people on general relief; the formerly incarcerated; and youth transitioning out of foster care. WERC’s goal is to successfully connect them with jobs in L.A. County’s public sector, such as in environmental management or community health care.

A potential employee needs some ability to navigate a computer to find potential jobs, fill out an application.

Simon says there is a whole group of people for whom job seeking skills and the expertise required to master a given job have “migrated online.” Many who need the work haven’t followed along due to a lack of digital access. “They have not migrated along with those job processes,” he says.

Almost all the county jobs with which WERC connects clients require navigating the county website. That’s certainly a challenge on a mobile phone or when sitting at a library computer, even one that doesn’t drop the internet connection. The entire transaction demands a skillset beyond that of many of those in the vulnerable populations with whom Simon works.

In California homes and across the country, ease of digital access breaks down along racial and economic lines. A 2021 Pew Research Foundation study shows that eight in 10 white adults report owning a laptop or desktop computer, while 69% of Black and 67% of Hispanic respondents said they have those amenities. The figures for broadband are similar — 71% of Black respondents reported they had broadband in the household; among Hispanics it was 65%.

That lack of broadband hinders access to career paths and education, says Hernan Galperin, associate professor of communications at USC and director of the Annenberg Research Network on International Communication, who has extensively studied broadband use with a focus on access and equity.

“Study after study has shown that those who are on a mobile connection are at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to navigate, to take an opportunity, to take advantage of remote education, simply because when connections are less reliable, they’re less stable.”

And digital access, like other forms of access, takes money.

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People in lower income communities are less likely to find available affordable internet than those in wealthier neighborhoods, Galperin says. Broadband companies compete for consumers in higher income areas where households can afford to keep everyone connected.

In a lower income neighborhood, options tend to be more limited because internet service providers (ISPs) — companies such as AT&T or Comcast — are reluctant to invest there, Galperin says.

“If you live in a wealthy neighborhood, you typically have two, maybe three ISPs in your area, and you can choose from different providers. Prices obviously are lower when there’s competition. That does not tend to happen in lower income areas where racial minorities are located. What we see is less availability, higher prices.”

The combination of fewer choices and the higher prices makes for what Galperin calls “less adoption” among the people in some communities. “They are underconnected. Perhaps they are connected, but they are only able to pay for a mobile broadband data plan.”

Angela Siefer calls the result “digital redlining.” She’s not the only one. It’s become a widely used designation to describe practices that, like the way residential redlining shuts Black or brown residents out of access to loans and other financial services, exclude low income neighborhoods from access to quality digital services. Governing.com defines it as an underinvestment by service providers in low income communities.

Siefer is a founder and serves as executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) based in Columbus, Ohio. She works with community organizations around the country to help residents access internet skills that not only connect them to jobs but to the skills needed to do a job.

“[Even] the jobs you don’t think of as requiring digital skills, like construction jobs, do in fact require digital skills,” she notes. “The fact that you know how to use your phone in some situations is not sufficient for that job.”

A report by the National Skills Coalition found that 13% of people of employment age have no digital capability and 18% have very limited skills. Another 35% have achieved a baseline level of proficiency, while 33% have advanced skills.

NDIA pushes on both local and national fronts to bridge the digital divide. The organization lends support to a network of local “digital navigators” across the United States — individuals from a trusted institution like a library, a social services agency or community organization. Navigators help neighbors figure out low cost home broadband solutions, when possible; connect them to a free or low cost device; and direct them to digital literacy programs to improve their skills.

It’s a national grassroots approach that Siefer says has caught on.

But digital equity has also received a big boost from beyond the grassroots. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed off in July 2021 on a multiyear $6 billion plan to construct a state-owned middle-mile system — high capacity fiber lines that move larger amounts of data at high speeds over long distances between local networks in order to distribute broadband access more evenly.

The plan allots $2 billion to set up last-mile broadband connections to link homes and businesses with local networks.

The investment at the federal level is historic in scope — the 2021 federal infrastructure bill sets forth a $65 billion investment into broadband, including $42.5 billion allotted to the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program that states can distribute to local municipalities, companies and nonprofits.

The funds are aimed at enabling states to build out their digital systems — laying the fiber, setting up the towers. The infrastructure bill also included a $14 billion appropriation for the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, a subsidy for low income households with an income of up to 200% of the poverty line — $26,500 for a household of four. Also eligible for help to pay for internet service and devices are households with members that receive public assistance such as SNAP grocery benefits, Medicaid and federal housing assistance.

Implementation of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program is almost as complex as the internet itself. How the money will be distributed in each state will depend on the leanings of the state government. Local municipalities will have to carry out plans that may rely on local carriers or providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast to ensure affordable access for their communities.

Meanwhile, local digital justice organizations around the country will likely get into the mix. Siefer, of the NDIA, says the direction of federal and state funds locally means more potential for communities to get into the decision making process. One aspiration would be to form public-private partnerships that have a say in where broadband connectivity is built and can weigh in on pricing.

When the federal infrastructure legislation passed in 2021, some industry groups insisted that a relative lack of government intervention had encouraged ISP companies’ investment in new infrastructure. Some analysts have cautioned that public investment could “erode industry pricing power,” as a spokesperson from the credit rating agency Fitch observed, and the CEO of lobby group USTelecom beefed to the Wall Street Journal about the “unintended consequences of implementation.”

The US Telecom CEO has since tempered his public comments, and others in the industry have expressed cautious optimism.

Siefer doesn’t buy the argument that an infrastructure subsidy program will hinder development in the digital sector.

In rural areas and on tribal land, she says, “The reason that there’s no infrastructure is because the companies don’t get a return on investment. So why would they build out in a place where they can’t get enough subscribers to recoup their cost? This is why the government has to step in here.”

Crossposted from Capital & Main