THE BLOG

So You Think You Are a Digital Native?

06/11/2015 03:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

I am a sucker for graduation season. There's something so inspiring about the closing of one chapter and the promise of a new one; standing on the cusp of the future with a world of possibilities ahead. Like Old Faithful, I can be counted on for tears--whether I know anyone graduating or not--as the solemn chords of Pomp and Circumstance fill the hall.

Last week, P-TECH High School in Brooklyn graduated its first class. The school's model allows its students to pursue both their high school diploma and a college degree over the course of six years. This first graduating class managed to do both - in just four years! These new graduates are finishing with not only their high school diplomas, but degrees in computer systems technology as well. Some are going on to four-year institutions, while others are entering the workforce. These students are unique, not just because of their accelerated progress through a rigorous STEM school, but because they are entering the post-high school world already tech savvy.

Troubling new research from Change the Equation has found that - unlike this first class of graduates at P-TECH - American millennials are not, in fact, tech savvy. The report examines the 2012 Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which tests the key cognitive and workplace skills needed to participate in society. The biggest finding: despite the fact that they are the first generation of "digital natives," 58 percent of young people aged 16-34 who took the test have low technology skills. I'll say that again - 58 percent of American millennials do not have the technology skills they need to be successful. In fact, the United States ranks dead last worldwide.

What does that really mean? Being tech savvy is not simply the ability to text, tweet, or take a selfie, but rather being able to use technology to solve problems. It's being able to use a tablet, phone, or laptop and accompanying software to innovate and explore; to enhance productivity; and to solve problems large and small - at home and at work. This isn't about becoming a tech professional, a coder, or programmer - these are basic technology problem-solving skills that everyone should know and be able to employ.

Even more troubling, these young people are wholly unaware of the ways this lack of skills is holding them back. In fact, 91 percent of millennial PIAAC test takers believe that a lack of computer skills has not affected their chances of being hired, promoted, or given a raise. And that's costing them, dearly. Even when other factors -- such as race, gender, education level, math skills, and literacy skills -- are held constant, a person ranked at the lowest skill level earns on average nearly 40 percent less than a person at the highest level. At a time when millennials are struggling to gain a foothold in the middle class, despite the fact that the job market is recovering and businesses are hiring, their lack of tech savvy is hampering their economic potential and social mobility - now and for the future.

So, what can we do to make sure that we don't fail the next generation? Opportunities for young people to master problem solving with technology must become the rule rather than the exception. We've got to empower teachers and adult youth leaders to effectively use, teach with, and impart technology savvy to their students. Business leaders are doing their part to bring high-quality, high-impact STEM education programs to 1.5 million more young people nationwide in 2015 as part of the Start with STEM initiative, and CTEq is working with those business leaders to expand those numbers dramatically in the coming years. But Corporate American can't do it alone - now is the time for them to join forces with government, educators, and other STEM advocates to sustain and expand current efforts and ensure that all young people in the U.S. have the opportunity to become tech savvy.

The results of the data are sobering, certainly, but what I see is potential. This is a "Eureka!" moment for us - because we can see the problem and know how to fix it. Tech skills are an incredible and largely unacknowledged tool for social mobility - and we need all the tools we can get! Now is the time to act to ensure that the promise of the American Dream - we can't fail another generation.