To Future-Proof the American Economy, We Need 5 Million Digital Jobs in 5 Years


The challenge isn’t having enough workers to fill these roles: It’s that available workers aren’t trained in these high-demand areas.

As we enter Year Two of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are at a critical juncture as a country. Yes, the unemployment rate is falling in 2021—but in part because of people leaving the labor force. Millions more have been displaced, lost work, or are underemployed due to the continuing effects of COVID-19. 

And while economists predict that 2021 could be bright for the economy as a whole thanks to stimulus spending, technology will continue to displace many millions more workers. The World Economic Forum puts it starkly: 85 million jobs will be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines by 2025. Forty million U.S. workers might see their jobs eliminated over the next 10 years due to digital transformation, according to McKinsey. 

Yet at the same time companies are laying off employees with obsolete skill sets, American companies are struggling terribly to fill openings for digital and technology jobs. According to proprietary research from Udacity, 83% of large enterprises admit to having major skills gaps.

The challenge isn’t having enough workers to fill these roles: It’s that available workers aren’t trained in these high-demand areas. And that’s 100% solvable. Other countries have started to catch on to the need to support their citizens in this digital transformation. Dubai launches the One Million Arab Coders Initiative. Egypt trained 175,000 digital workers in a government-funded program launched at the onset of the pandemic. 

So why isn’t America doing anything at scale? 

If America trains just five million workers for digital jobs in the next five years, it would drive an estimated $250 billion or more in GDP growth and help the economy to regain technological leadership in the world.

For decades, good-paying jobs in middle America, the Rust Belt, Appalachia, the South and inner cities have been eliminated or shipped overseas. Smart, hard-working, talented people have found themselves on the sidelines of the economy through no fault of their own. 

The reasons are today’s in-demand jobs aren’t where they live and people don’t have the right skill sets even if they were there. This is where it gets interesting. The impact of COVID-19 has proven that digital workers can be even more effective in remote environments than in an office building. The first problem is now permanently solved as employers from Silicon Valley to New York City can hire new talent pools anywhere in the country.  

The second problem, training, is the final yard to cross if we want to transform our nation (and millions of lives) for the better. The private sector is already working hard to close this gap. At Udacity, we see Fortune 500 companies making consistent efforts to address this, either by partnering to create courseware that specifically trains learners in the skills needed today or by sponsoring scholarships to make skills development more widely available for everyone. 

But rather than relying on corporate America to handle this in its fragmented way, our new government has a unique opportunity to spearhead a nationwide program that focuses on providing those high-demand skills needed for the future—skills like cloud computing, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and machine learning, technical support, systems administration, digital marketing and more. You can teach these skills in no more than six months, and allow people to take them alongside their current jobs. And they can be funded through lifetime learning credits that shouldn’t exceed $2,500 per trainee.

There is a quick, proven and powerful opportunity to turn the economic devastation of the pandemic into a turbo-charging of the American economy. Jobs that have been lost can be replaced by careers of the future. Career stagnation can be transformed into technology-fueled upward mobility. Skills that are lacking can be turned into a global competitive advantage.

We can put Americans back to work and future-proof our workforce but it needs to start with support at the federal level. 

Gabe Dalporto is the chief executive officer of Udacity.