New survey says limited access to Wi-Fi and computers adds obstacles to employment New survey says limited access to Wi-Fi and computers adds obstacles to employment

Connecticut digital access survey uncovers effects on young adults, English language learners Connecticut digital access survey uncovers effects on young adults, English language learners

September 13, 2023

How much does limited access to the internet and computers impact employment in a community? Quite a lot, especially if that access is restricted to smaller, hand-held devices, according to a recent survey led by members of the Federal Reserve’s Reinventing Our Communities team in East Hartford, Connecticut.

The survey found that many local job seekers who rely on their cell phones for internet access face more barriers to employment.

Rural and urban communities both deal with limited access to the internet and large-screen devices like computers and tablets, said Keenen Grooms, a senior community development analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Grooms said that in East Hartford, many young adults lose access to school-provided laptops and internet after high school graduation. About one-third of survey respondents ages 18-33 report relying solely on small devices like phones for internet access.

“They’re taking interviews and meetings on their phones, and they have to go to places like McDonald’s or the library for free Wi-Fi,” Grooms said. “It makes the job-attaining process much harder, especially coming out of a pandemic, as more jobs require hybrid and remote work.”

Many community members who rely on cell phones also face language barriers

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia launched the Reinventing Our Communities Cohort Program in 2020 to focus on maximizing employment and equitable workforce recovery following COVID-19. East Hartford Works! – the local team in the Boston Fed’s community development initiative the Working Cities Challenge – joined the program in 2022.

Amy Peltier, who directs East Hartford Works!, said she and her Reinventing Our Communities team members worked with the local library, high school, adult education department, and the Connecticut Department of Labor to distribute the survey. The town also shared it on social media.

The team collected 802 responses between January and February this year and focused on respondents ages 18-33, when most adults are establishing their careers. They found that 28% of respondents in this age group rely solely on their cell phone to access the internet – and English is not the primary language for more than half of those with only a cell phone.

“These are people that are already experiencing barriers to education and employment,” Peltier said. “This lack of digital access makes it even harder for them to connect to the resources that are designed to help them.”

Even without language barriers, she added, data limits on phone plans – and the fact employers often don’t have mobile-friendly job applications – can make it incredibly difficult to design a resume or apply to jobs on a cell phone.

Reinventing Our Communities team aims to increase collaboration, digital access

East Hartford librarian Cathy Potter said community members visit the East Hartford library daily to use the public computers and Wi-Fi. Oftentimes, they’re doing schoolwork, completing job searches and applications, or trying to communicate with family and friends, she said.

To help meet these needs, the library created a program that pairs visitors with a “digital navigator” who can provide technical support and teach digital skills. They can also help community members improve their resumes and build an online presence for local small businesses.

“This survey was very meaningful because we were able to connect with so many residents here, and hopefully the information we collected can help make some broader changes,” Potter said.

Grooms said community leaders should be aware that most residents who rely on their cell phones to get online use search engines like Google to look for jobs. That means they aren’t using specific tools or state-run sites designed to support employment.

“It’s key to use this information to figure out where the need really is, and then work to create services within community programs that are already established,” he said. “For example, that could include more multilingual case managers who can work directly with folks or allocating some funding to provide young professionals with free or reduced costs for internet and devices.”

Peltier said she’s hoping to work with East Hartford’s adult education department to increase digital skills training in their curriculum and make sure their students – as well as graduating high schoolers – know about the library’s program and other multilingual resources.

“There are many community-based solutions to digital equity, and East Hartford is leading the way in Connecticut on several of these,” she said. “It’s crucial that we continue collaborating with local partners to share our survey results and keep getting the word out about resources already available to residents right here, in their own neighborhood.”

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