Column: America’s new digital divide

Jim Clark and Dalila Wilson-Scott

Can’t access a desktop computer? There’s an app for that. Thanks to the rise of smartphones, underserved populations are more digitally connected than ever. Since 2009, internet connection has shot up 20 percentage points among Latinos and 10 percentage points among African-Americans.

Smartphones are behind the bulk of these gains. According to the Pew Research Center, 1 in 5 Americans rely on smartphones to access the online world. Young Americans, non-whites and populations with low income and education levels are especially “smartphone dependent.”

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to explore the digital universe on a 5-inch smartphone screen. And now that skills like coding and web development are increasingly valuable in the professional world, low-income students are experiencing a new kind of poverty.

The private sector has a significant role to play in bridging the digital access gap.

For smartphone-dependent populations, tasks like applying for a job, completing homework and researching online are much more difficult. While many children and teens have gained internet access in recent years, it’s really difficult to use smartphones in ways that prepare them to lead, create and collaborate in the digital world.

Such limited technological access has created a new digital divide that denies key learning opportunities to at-risk youth — including the 15 million American children living in poverty.

Today’s digital divide bodes ill for America’s future workforce. The National Math and Science Initiative estimates that careers involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will account for 60 percent of new employment opportunities over the next century. But currently, only 20 percent of Americans have the resumes and professional experiences STEM firms need. The lack of critical tech skills is particularly pronounced in communities of color.

This is not the business environment we want to foster, and it is certainly not the type of future we want for our children. Fortunately, a number of promising initiatives from the private sector are helping empower America’s youth to unleash the full potential of digital technology.

From building computer hubs in Harlem to running storytelling summer camps where kids publish e-books and make their own movies, private companies are prepping American’s youth for the digital revolution.

Luckily, the private sector recognizes its crucial obligation to invest in our future workforce and work extensively with community partners to recruit talent from underserved communities. We must ensure that tech training isn’t confined to the well-funded classroom — and that students in low-income neighborhoods can access cutting-edge resources.

Active partnerships between the private sector and various nonprofits across the country are fostering encouraging progress.

In 2012, while running for Congress, Reshma Saujani noticed that computer science classes were dominated by boys. So she launched Girls Who Code, a summer program to help 20 high school girls in New York bolster their computing skills.

Today, Saujani’s nonprofit helps nearly 10,000 girls in 42 states — and has attracted financial support from dozens of the country’s largest tech companies. These investments are making a difference. Ninety percent of Girls Who Code summer participants plan to study computer science in college.

For our part, our organizations teamed up to reach underserved communities with the My.Future platform, a year-round, after-school program that equips children to thrive in today’s digital world. My.Future helps youth develop their digital interests with a curriculum that ranges from foundational technology skills to robotics, game design, programming and online journalism.

To date, My.Future has trained nearly a thousand Boys & Girls Club staff members on digital literacy fundamentals, and prepared them to engage the nearly 4 million kids and teens who attend clubs each year. We hope to expand our reach further and continue to support each other’s digital inclusion goals. Comcast, for example, is working to get computers with internet access into more low-income homes to help residents access important education, health care and career resources.

Access to technology can do wonders for America’s at-risk youth. We’ve seen it happen firsthand. Running partnerships like My.Future is an effective way to turn childhood digital curiosity into lifelong success. We jointly urge the private sector to help close the modern digital divide by nurturing tomorrow’s great tech minds.

Jim Clark is president and chief executive officer of Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Dalila Wilson-Scott is senior vice president of community investment for Comcast Corp., and president of the Comcast Foundation.