6 Employer Strategies for Addressing the Digital Divide

Level the playing field for students regardless of whether they have access to technology.

In spite of increasing awareness, a digital divide continues to plague this country—and COVID-19 has only served to exacerbate the existing inequality. There’s a widening gap between those households that have new modems, new laptops, and speedy access to broadband—and those whose residents struggle to get a signal with older devices and low data plans.

It all comes down to money, and unfortunately, what we are seeing is that the people with less of it are shut out. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports that 21M Americans don’t have broadband at home. This internet inequality leaves significant parts of the population out of access to information, to education, and to potential employers—the very things that serve to drive income growth. As FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel told the Washington Post last spring, “With coronavirus, we’re about to expose just how challenging our digital divide is, and just how unequal access to broadband is.”

The groups who are most heavily impacted by this equity gap are typically underrepresented, including Black, Latinx, and women students. The unfortunate reality is that traditional pathways from campus to career tend to preserve racial and class inequality—and in 2020, it’s time for this to change.

It’s worth noting that significant strides have been made in recent years to bring underrepresented groups into a world of economic opportunity. Yet this wave of inclusivity is highly dependent on technology to reduce inequality.  And if access to that technology is threatened, the progress is hindered.

How employers and educational institutions can bridge the digital divide

For students who lack access to a computer or a reliable way to get online, some of our higher education partners are actively lending a hand. In a talk with Christine Cruzvergara, Handshake’s VP of Higher Education and Student Success, she shares some of the ways educational institutions are pitching in and some ways that employers can do the same.

1. Make equipment and technology accessible

Cruzvergara points out that many institutions are helping to bridge the digital divide by providing hotspots and/or giving out, lending, or renting equipment to students. 

For example, when COVID-19 swept the nation into a near-shutdown, Paul Quinn College—an HBCU in Dallas—sent out Chromebooks and hotspots to students in need. This move is consistent with the institution’s values as reducing income inequality has been a key objective for the college ever since its president, Michael Sorrell, joined in 2007. In fact, the first thing he did after joining was cut tuition by 40%, from $23,800 to $14,275 to reduce student debt at graduation time.

2. Keep doing virtual events

Cruzvergara believes that employers can still effectively reach those candidates who are shut out of participation in so many activities. When it comes to addressing the digital divide, we’re seeing more underrepresented students engage virtually because it’s easier to fit in between work schedules and child care or family responsibilities. 

“You need to continue doing virtual events, and the things that you would normally do on Handshake’s platform,” she says. “Because there will be students who do have access, who are able to participate and you don’t want to miss out on them.”

—Christine Cruzvergara, VP of Higher Education and Student Success at Handshake

In addition, she advises companies to set expectations in those virtual events—for example, letting students know your preferences, such as whether to ask questions in the Chat, or if they should leave their camera on or off. Questions of etiquette are just as important for these underrepresented groups, and any guidance offered is sure to relieve uncertainty for students.

3. Continue reaching out to individual students

“The second thing you should be taking advantage of is messaging,” she says. “Even if students don’t have a great connection, and they’re not able to participate in a full event or have their video on, they can still answer a message.” Cruzvergara also encourages personalized messaging. “That’s why Handshake’s Campaigns and Segments are important. So as you do your searches, think about how you can actually segment qualified students in even more targeted ways with more personalized messaging.”

4. Reach out to career centers at schools

Cruzvergara advises employers to reach out to the career centers at any schools with the representative student population they’re trying to recruit. “Don’t just go to the HBCUs; don’t just go to the Hispanic-serving institutions; also look at predominantly white institutions that may have underrepresented populations, but may not have been on your core school list.” As an example, she cites George Mason University. “It’s one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation, but it probably isn’t on a lot of employers’ core school list.

According to Cruzvergara, college career centers are more aware than ever that they play a key role in leveling the playing field. The good news is that schools are starting to pay attention to the demographics of their population: which students are coming in, which students are engaging, which are not. She notes, “They’re starting to ask, who are we missing, and how do we develop a plan to engage them? Where are they going, or are they not going anywhere? Did they get this information? What’s happening to them?”

5. Build programs to bridge the gap between school and work

In addition, leading employers are crucial figures in continuing to support these students, developing training programs that enable the transition of underserved groups from campus to career.  Some apprenticeship and internship programs have broadened their scope in terms of the number of people that they can take. Some have shifted to online and to self-paced versions. Cruzvergara cites JPMorgan Chase as a positive example of a company that has made significant accommodations to help underserved students. 

“They took a program that was once limited to a certain number of students for a limited number of days, and they’ve made it something that is actually more accessible to a lot more students. It’s not the exact same program, but it’s a pipeline feeder.” The program is self-paced, and is designed to give these prospective employees exposure—to explore and see if they would even be interested in working for the company. 

AT&T also stepped up to help students whose summer internships may have been canceled. With the launch of AT&T’s Summer Learning Academy, the telecommunications company created a self-paced, online learning program to give America’s next generation of leaders the professional experience they need to launch their careers.

Companies don’t have to create virtual internship programs to bridge the digital divide—they can help reach students without equitable technology access in other ways.

Cruzvergara says, “There are excellent opportunities for employers or for larger companies to create their own scholarship fund, equipment fund, or technology fund to offer to students who don’t have access. It’s an easy way to build their brand and generate goodwill.”

6. Relax the rules & expand your idea of the ideal candidate

Yet another way employers can help is by changing their mindset regarding prospective candidates. To attract a more diverse candidate pool, companies need to broaden their definition of what success looks like. 

As we outlined in two recent blog posts, one about Latinx students and one about Black students, some of recruiters’ traditional methods for sourcing top candidates—such as GPA cutoffs—have hidden bias. GPA cutoffs exclude disproportionately large numbers of Black and Latinx students. Another sourcing strategy that can hurt these candidates is the traditional short recruiting window.  

“One of the key findings during this latest round of insights on underrepresented groups is that rigid recruiting windows—meaning if you only recruit during the spring and fall—end up excluding a lot of students from underrepresented backgrounds,” says Cruzvergara. “More often than not, these students have a part time job, they need to support their family; they’re not gonna have time to submit these applications during an inflexible two-month period.” 

Flexibility and an open mind are key to sourcing and engaging your next generation of leaders.

Closing thoughts

Our discussion with Cruzvergara inspires our ability to think creatively about the ways that employers and higher education institutions can help level the systemic digital divide. It is up to all of us to work together and to shed traditional practices that leave the same people behind—over and over. 

We hope we’ve inspired you to expand what you’re doing to reach all students at this time. If you have any ideas, we’re all ears—get in touch with a Handshake team member to talk through best practices for closing the equity gap.