The IEDC Economic Development Journal – Winter 2022 – “A Hundred-Year Event” and the Perfect Storm for U.S. Manufacturing: What’s Causing the Escalating Skills Gap and What Tools Can Economic Developers Use to Address It?

The soft skills and middle level skills gap in manufacturing is escalating due to challenges from past decades, plus the more immediate emphasis on reshaping the supply chain through re-shoring and other means. This article explores the causes and provides solutions that economic developers and other stakeholders can use in tandem, coupled with adding use of game-changing virtual training tools. Download the Winter Economic Development Journal Here – pages 34-40 article feature

Everyone’s a Gamer

Gaming habits continue to skyrocket in 2021 and beyond.

Over the past few decades, the term “gamer” has been loosely used to categorize the maligned, often-misunderstood group of people that regularly engage in video, computer, or tabletop games. But the truth is, we’re all gamers today, as the immersive power of gaming has sprinkled its magic fairy dust on our otherwise linear, more traditional methods of entertainment and learning, and there’s no shame in that.

The demographics of gaming are changing. 

No longer is it just teenage boys scraping up change for the latest Call of Duty, but instead the gaming market has exploded in all directions. Mobile gaming, esports, VR/AR, social gaming, and gaming streaming have all attracted new audiences. Take Netflix, the COVID-crowned king of binging’s latest announcement of adding video games to its service. It’s the everyday mainstream population they’re responding to – our preferences, our peak hours, and our penchant for interactivity. Sitting on the sofa as a voyeur to other people’s narrative is no longer enough for us, according to their research. 

We want in.

Even Peleton, the bike that pedaled so many of us through the pandemic from our living rooms is upping their game by adding Lanebreak to their repertoire. Similar to your typical rhythm and dance games, here you’re incentivized to pedal at a certain cadence or resistance along a Tron-like virtual highway. 

We play to slim.

Learning games are earning more than points.

Mobile games in education have also taken a giant leap forward as of late. Hands-on skills development is now, literally, in the palm of middle and high schoolers hands, offering engaging ways for kids to gain career-making skills and connections, and for industry to grow a work-ready talent pool, even in under-resourced communities.

We play for our future.

Even though video games have been a part of the popular culture since the early 1980’s, no one could foresee how important gaming would become in the 21st century. So as we begin to shed the gaming stigma of yesteryear, it’s time to embrace this new era of game-changing connectivity that offers real-time, real-life rewards.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Do you have a favorite game? If so, please share below!

WORK ETHIC. Can it be taught?

According to Thinkers Point, work ethic is a soft skill and a belief that diligence and tough work have an ethical benefit and an inherent ability, virtue, or value to strengthen character and individual abilities. And according to many, you’re either born with a strong work ethic, or you’re not.

Psychologist Marie Hartwell-Walker recently studied disparate degrees of this valuable skill between kids who lived on small family farms and “city” kids. The farm kids worked (and worked hard), she reported, while the city kids lamented over routine chores, such as clearing the table. 

Why the difference?

“I think it comes down to this,” she writes. “On the smaller farms, work is clearly valued, it is done routinely, by everyone, and the consequences for not doing it are obvious and clear. In other households, kids experience work as capriciously imposed by the big people and whether they do it or not has little observable consequence.”

Work ethic is a soft skill employers look for in every industry, especially those looking to fill positions for skills-based careers that require a measurable level of output in a timely manner. Mike Rowe, arguably the most passionate advocate for skills-based careers of this century, even named a scholarship after it. The Work Ethic Scholarship Program is “about recognizing people who understand the importance of work ethic, personal responsibility, delayed gratification, and a positive attitude. These are hardworking men and women who will keep the lights on, water running, and air flowing.”

The skills gap in American manufacturing is reported to leave 2.4 million jobs unfilled through 2028 causing a potential economic loss of $2.5 trillion. That’s a lot of strong work ethic needing to be cultivated in order to fill them. The good news is that there are everyday practices that can be taught in creative ways no matter where your next workforce lives that can transform – and even incentivize – employable behaviors into workready habits.

1. Practicing Punctuality 

By developing the habit of showing up on time, or even being early for appointments/class/work, kids can have the chance to mentally prepare for what’s ahead and to take advantage of meaningful opportunities available to those who are first in line. 

2. Developing Professionalism 

This goes beyond eye contact and a firm handshake to include attitude, values, and demeanor. Simply being positive and cordial to their peers, refraining from gossip, and being respectful of others is a recipe for an effective team player and leader.

3. Cultivating Self-Discipline

Any good achievement takes discipline. Staying focused on the long-term goal and not being side-tracked by short-term gratification translates into consistent follow-through on projects. 

4. Using Time Wisely

Ben Franklin was among the first to coin, “Never leave that ‘till tomorrow which you’ll do today.” An age-old credo, but so is “time is money.”

5. Staying Balanced 

Having a strong work ethic doesn’t mean being tethered to a production line on their feet all day. It includes taking time to relax and recharge, in order to maintain a clear perspective at work.

A Teachable Strategy

Schools are currently challenged with prioritizing soft skill curriculum in the midst of COVID-catch-up, so practice outside of school is paramount in strengthening these skills in students – a deficit costing industry a considerable amount of money in new hire training and attrition. One way we approach 21st-century skills is through 21st-century methods of teaching them. By incorporating soft skills into each of our games’ hard-skill challenges, both industry and students entering the workforce are playing for a more well-rounded win.

The “Lean-Forward” Advantage of Mobile Games in Workforce Development

One of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, Abraham Maslow, established “the hierarchy of motivation”, theorizing that in any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth, or to step back into safety. Both are immersive actions but inspired by disparate levels of ambition. The same dichotomy arguably holds true with how we choose to experience our downtime, too. Even before the pandemic, Netflix unleashed a franchise phenomenon of cozy socks and loungewear, designed to support a feet-up, laid-back escape from the everyday. Mobile gaming, by contrast – while also a pastime catapulted into the billions by the at-home dynamic of COVID-19 – commands an entirely different posture. Phone in hand, elbows on knees, with eyes on the screen the player is alert and at the ready. The late film and music editor Norman Hollyn calls this the “Lean Forward Moment”, where the audience has an emotional reaction that causes him or her to lean forward and pay more attention.

“The gamer lean has become a universal meme, but until now, the science behind its benefits were completely unknown,” says Tom Fairey, CEO, and founder of Stakester, an online gaming platform. One of their most popular games is soccer-inspired FIFA, which researchers from the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Leeds reported a leaning forward advantage of  4 minutes and 41 seconds per game to ensure a victory. Moving your main sensory system – your eyes – closer helps you focus and concentrate, they proved, and that leaning forward has a positive impact on sharpening players’ instincts.

Imagine swapping soccer out for gaming content that supports skills for the everyday. Rewards and incentives to reach different kinds of goals that are fun still command the same focus and attention, just with a different outcome. Here lies the ‘aha’ moment for parents, educators, and industry looking to prepare our next generation with the tools to succeed as the next workforce. By transforming skills development, career awareness, and job opportunities into mobile gaming technology, we can revolutionize how the next generation actively “leans in” to career pathways at an earlier age. 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comprises a five-tier model of human needs: physiological (food and clothing), safety (job security), love and belonging (friendship), esteem, and self-actualization.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The desire to level up, according to science, is simply in our DNA. This is what makes mobile gaming a profoundly powerful medium to perpetuate a step – or lean – forward to growth, instead of a step back to the safety of the same old tools and tactics for workforce development.

Top Three Soft Skills in Cyber/IT

The latest from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that jobs in information security are projected to grow by 31 percent by 2029. Not a surprise after a record-breaking year of cyberattacks.

“Anything with a power switch that uses an electrical current, anything that connects online, anything that touches most of our individual daily lives,” says Dr. Keith Clement, a Criminology professor at Cal State Fresno and Chair of California Cybersecurity Task Force: Workforce Development and Education. “If it turns on and off, there’s some chance that there could be some vulnerability attached to the device.”

So as the country gets creative in its allocation of resources in response, from stackable cybersecurity certification programs, K-12 cyber curriculum, and boot camps to meet the growing need for skilled cyber/IT professionals in both the public and private sector, the dire need for non-technical skills in technical careers is growing at the same rate. Soft skills, or lack thereof, are quickly becoming another, very real vulnerability for the U.S.

Three Soft C’s in Cyber:

1. Critical Thinking

Critical thinking was selected as the top required soft skill in a Tripwire survey –  the ability to solve complex problems by breaking them down into smaller components. This is an innate ability for some people, but you can also develop this skill by being observant, learning how things work, asking questions, and analyzing decisions. 

2. Communication

Gone are the days – and movies – of sitting in a dark room, staving off breaches to save the world. Because, according to Careers in Cyber Security, not only is the ability to see relationships between data and people key in finding ways to respond proactively against cyber risks and threats but the written and verbal ability to share such findings with stakeholders and team members is imperative in both “selling” a solution, as well as eliciting the support and resources to implement one.

3. Collaboration

According to think CSC, collaboration is the best defense against cyber attacks. Hackers attempt to breach secure networks from multiple angles, so our defenses must also leverage diverse areas of expertise. From sharing information and active listening to asking for help, the quantifiable value of collaboration is easy math: Two heads are better than one.

Adaptability, creativity, and attention to detail also rank high in the non-technical must-haves in Cyber careers, arguably catapulting soft skills into equal-billing status as the unsung heroes in keeping us all safe.