The coronavirus pandemic has drawn new attention to the digital divide, as the need for online schooling and working from home has disproportionately hurt those without computer equipment and skills.
Research by Paul A. Pavlou, dean of the C. T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston, found that people with basic Information Technology (IT) skills - including the ability to use email, copy and paste files and work with an Excel spreadsheet - are more likely to be employed, even in jobs that aren't explicitly tied to those skills.
People with more advanced IT skills generally earned higher salaries, the researchers found. The work is described in Information Systems Research.
"Unemployment and low wages remain pressing societal challenges in the wake of increased automation, more so for traditionally-disadvantaged groups in the labor market, such as women, minorities, and the elderly," the researchers wrote. "However, workers who possess relevant IT skills might have an edge in an increasingly digital economy."
The findings, Pavlou said, reinforce the need for robust public policy to ensure people, especially women, older workers and others who are more likely to face employment discrimination, have the basic IT skills needed for the modern working world, since few companies provide on-the-job training in those skills.
"Very few people can get these skills from their employer. Workers are expected to obtain these IT skills themselves, in order to get a job in the first place" he said. "And the less-privileged population they are, the harder time they have obtaining these skills that require computer equipment and internet access."
That leaves many workers, especially from under-represented populations in the labor market, unable to even apply for work, as more job applications - and now, interviews - are handled online.
In addition to Pavlou, co-authors on the paper include Hilal Atasoy of Rutgers University and Rajiv Banker from Temple University.
The analysis was conducted using two datasets from the Turkish Statistical Institute, and Pavlou said the findings are especially relevant for the developing world, where people are less likely to have IT skills and access to computer equipment than they are in the United States.
But the pandemic has laid bare unequal access to technology in the United States, too, as schools and universities struggle to provide students with computers, internet hotspots and other equipment to continue their educations online.
The work thus has implications for marginalized workers in the United States and other developed countries, Pavlou said. That includes women and older workers, who are more likely to opt out of the labor force if they cannot work from home - jobs that are more likely to require at least basic tech savvy.
"The digital divide is a major societal problem," Pavlou said. "I think the pandemic will make it even more pronounced. People with basic IT skills will have access to more opportunities, and it is imperative for educational institutions to provide these IT skills, especially in traditionally-disadvantaged populations."
Information Systems Research