Skillsgapp Case Study: San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools

How skillsgapp used mobile gaming to engage students in cybersecurity skills and corresponding career pathways

Overview

San Bernardino, the largest geographical county in the country, was hosting its annual STEM event, STEMapalooza, virtually in 2021 due to COVID-19. With two counties’ 4th-8th graders expected to attend, engagement was a concern, along with meaningful career awareness and pathways to support Southern California’s key industry sectors, including the increasingly in-demand, cybersecurity. 

To support this initiative, skillsgapp customized a mobile-friendly video game deployed during the event designed to simulate real-world cybersecurity scenarios with an emphasis on the “3 C’s” identified as industry’s skill priorities: Cyber Proficiencies; Critical Thinking; and Communication. Leaderboards, badges, and career facts and pathways were incorporated into game play, along with trackable performance metrics.

“It’s been a challenging and unusual year. Due to the virtual nature of our events, we decided to provide a hands-on, engaging tool that’s both fun for the students and that also supports the needs of industry through skills development for our students. The goal of Alliance for Education has always been to assure both students and industries that we are educating for the world of work.” 

Carol Tsushima, Administrator for the Alliance for Education at SBCSS

screens of Bl4ckout game

Approach

Compelling narrative:
By introducing a fictional antagonist, BL4CKOUT, a notorious hacker threatening the privacy and security of STEMapalooza, we were able to establish a need for all attending to do their part in saving the event from destruction. In the absence of classrooms, this strategy was designed to promote community between two counties’ districts, all fighting for the same goal within each cyber challenge presented to them.

Awareness and Promotion:
Creating awareness of a never-been-done gaming component of this event included providing teachers with a game trailer to share with their students, a landing page with game registration information, and count-down emails to the teachers with game details and reward information to get the kids excited to play, registered, and their avatar designed.

Access:
The game was developed to be accessible on all devices from desktop to mobile to promote ease of play wherever the student may be.

Personalization:
Each player had the opportunity to select and personalize their own avatar based on skills-based job sectors needed in numerous industries, including automotive, aerospace, life sciences, and IT. 

Strategic Deployment:
STEMapalooza was an all-day event offering virtual class and demonstrations. In between these events we deployed one of four five-minute challenges simulating a real world cyber breach. Increasing in difficulty based on performance, students could see how they ranked among their peers, grade, and county.

Industry Support:
Upon completion of each challenge, students were rewarded for their achievements and offered corresponding career facts, salaries, and pathways based on their proficiencies.

Rewards and Incentives:
Those who successfully completed all four challenges received an in-game badge which could be redeemed for in-class rewards, like homework passes and extra credit.

Data Tracking:
Upon completion of the game, each player’s performance was trackable based on speed, engagement, and accuracy. Exit surveys were administered after the event to capture verbatims and quantifiable analysis to measure recall and interest.


Results

Results reflect the one-day event. Based on success, Hack Out BL4CKOUT will be used at subsequent county STEM events in 2021.

badge graohic

Unique Game Users:
5,285 (4.6 attended virtual event)

Sessions Played Across Users:
11,927

Average Playtime Per User:
37.38 minutes

Total Hours Player Across Users:
3,330 hours

Post-game Student Survey:
89% recall on in-game narrative and content 

“I learned that with my cyber skills, I can make $85,000 to $131,000 a year.”
6th Grade Student, San Bernardino, CA

“I learned that cybersecurity study programs teach you how to protect computer operating systems, networks, and data from cyber attacks.”
6th Grade Student, San Bernardino, CA

“I learned to protect your stuff, or people will get to it.”
7th Grade Student, Riverside, CA

“The game taught me that the skills I had a lot of fun doing could also make me a lot of money some day.”
6th Grade Student, Riverside, CA

Conclusion

• Mobile gamification is a proven platform to deliver Gen Z skills-based content with corresponding career awareness, trackable engagement, performance and recall, along with artificial intelligence to adapt to and promote their proficiencies.

• Providing in-game rewards and real-world incentives tied to player performance promotes engagement and skill proficiency.

• Linking career pathways and facts to demonstrated skill proficiency in real time generates meaningful recall of actionable content.

• Students preferred the gaming experience over more traditional learning methods like videos and virtual lecture.

Another Workforce Recruitment Website? Next Bus.

iGen. Gen Tech. Net Gen. Digital Natives. All are synonymous with Gen Z, who accounts for 61 million people in the U.S. – a population exceeding millennials – and also our next workforce generation. This creates a huge challenge for workforce development agencies and industry, as marketing skills-based career opportunities and pathways in a way this generation will engage in, digitally, represents a brand new recruitment protocol.

But it’s time. With 10,000 Boomers reaching retirement age every day, there’s 3.5 million new manufacturing jobs to fill by 2025 alone.

What Research is Telling Us

According to a study conducted by SkillsUSA, meeting the demand for a new generation of manufacturing workers by drawing on the talent of all sectors of the U.S. workforce is more likely if the following occur: 

Students gain access to experiential learning opportunities earlier in their education pathway, and these opportunities increase throughout their high school education. 

Employers engage earlier in a student’s academic pathway. 

Parents and teachers gain access to local employers to learn about the broad range of opportunities modern manufacturing presents.  

Current Workforce Recruitment Strategies

Workforce development agencies and industry have made great strides in thinking outside the box to fill their talent pipeline, which has been imperative in helping reverse the stigma associated with the factories of yesteryear. But with every new generation, comes new challenges in reaching them. What worked for Millennials won’t work for GenZ, if they ever worked at all. 

1. Videos

Any medium that can bring kids closer to the inner workings of a state’s infrastructure and industry is a good thing. Which is why videos have been trending over the last decade, showing kids what’s really “under the hood” in today’s state-of-the-art facilities, along with testimony from happy, fulfilled employees who were once just like them. Videos help facilitate more deliberate career pathway discussions than a textbook, along with real, aspirational discourse. The challenge is that kids will likely only watch them once, making that engagement fleeting. They’re also difficult and expensive to update. What was state-of-the-art three years ago may be old-school today. This forces workforce development agencies and industry to shelve them – or, worse, if they don’t, that decades-long stigma is perpetuated.

2. Websites

Most states and regions have subscribed to the ‘If we build one, they will come’ philosophy of a website as a connective hub for career pathways and employment. And while many actually do come, we’re asking a lot of one medium to identify, qualify and materialize a meaningful future with “all-in” calls to action for next steps that are confusing to navigate and intimidating to pull the trigger on. So these sites become an entanglement of pie-in-the-sky portals and nebulous pathways, and they leave. 

3. Career Road Shows

Wrapping a bus or designing a booth to hit the road and spread the gospel of skills-based careers is a fun way to get the kids out of the classroom, engage in a conversation about meaningful career opportunities, and hand out a bundle of branded swag. But these can run over a million bucks and require equipment updates, depending on how long and far the show goes on, without one kid setting one foot inside a plant or facility. So that bus or booth needs to work extra hard in representing the advanced technology it’s touting. If it’s aerospace you’re selling, it had better be as cool as the rocket you’re making.

Let’s Get Digital

That same SkillsUSA study reports that CTE teachers believe industry-recognized credentials are valuable to students for beginning their careers, with 65% saying industry certificates are among the most valuable educational credentials after graduating high school. However, 35% of students enrolled in CTE courses say they have no contact with potential future employers, with only 12% experiencing site visits, 20% having pathway-related summer jobs, and 13% having pathway-related after-school jobs. 

So while videos and websites are digital mediums, they fulfill none of the aforementioned study’s criteria. Engagement is the magic word here, earlier.

To get in with Gen Z, workforce development efforts need to get into their phones and devices, where they spend an average of 9 hours a day. Social media like TikTok and Instagram account for much of that time, along with gaming – a favorite pastime reported by American teens. On top of that, there’s the social platform within games, where kids communicate back-and-forth in real-time via chat or voice, making mobile gaming the only medium that checks every box: engagement, mobility, and sharability. 

So if states and industry want to reach their next workforce, perhaps it’s time to get off the bus booth, video, or another website and start playing to win with gamified skills and recruitment that reaches kids wherever they are, on their phones, engaged and ready to play. 

Smartphones Can Change the Game in Catching Up Gen Z

Statistically speaking, one out of two of you is holding a phone right now. And if you’re not, you’re likely about to, as most mobile users check their phones 63 times a day.

Smartphone Usage: Going (and Growing) Strong

From texting to social media to streaming Netflix, the functionality of phones make it nearly impossible to put one down. Over this past year, the prowess of digital technology served as our tether to maintaining an education, connecting with loved ones, and even receiving healthcare. And if they say 21 days make a habit, try 365 of them. It’s safe to say, smartphones will remain snug in the palms of our hands.

According to techjury:
• There are 3.5 billion smartphone users in the world today
• Americans spend and average of 5.4 hours on their phone a day
• American teens spend an average of 9 hours a day in front of screens, and more than 7 of those are spent on mobile phones.

Another study reported that electronic device usage nearly doubled among U.S. kids during the pandemic.

chart on phone usage during COVID

Gaming is a Good Thing

So just what are our kids doing on their phones all day?

According financesonline, 75% of Gen Zers selected smartphones as their device of choice for everyday use, with 58% reporting playing games as their favorite pastime. That’s a lot of game time. The COVID-19 lockdown played a big part in this, of course, as mobile gaming helped serve as the universal antidote to the just-as-contagious side effect of the virus, boredom.

Games just may be the unsung hero over this past year, as they influenced our kids positively in different ways. Gaming makes us more competitive, for example, which means better problem-solvers. They can also enhance critical thinking, and expand our community beyond our four walls with those with similar interests.  

Take Pokémon GO, where users navigate the real world using an in-game map that allows them to visit “PokéStops”. While the app may appear to play to the wanderlust, one recent study’s findings reported respondents feeling more social, and expressed more positive emotions with increased motivation to explore their surroundings.” This reflects the opposite of the stigma associated with video games, in part, because these are mobile.

Mobile games can go where parents and educators can’t: Everywhere our kids go. So with learning loss at an all-time high due to the pandemic, maybe it’s ok that our kids are looking down at their phones, if they’re playing games that can teach them something meaningful … especially the ones that encourage them to play with a hire purpose.

Skills Gap ‘21: Opportunity Knocks

As we clamor for silver linings in the cloud of COVID-19, perhaps one is America’s skills gap, which is creeping up to a new high due to the exodus of Boomers from the workplace. While this presents many challenges for employers, it offers an abundance of opportunities for Gen Z who are in prime position to take advantage of the need to fill hundreds of thousands of jobs that make up our skills-based talent shortage over the next ten years.

America’s Skills Gap Trajectory

Those who hold college degrees have been hit hardest by the pandemic. According to edsurge, “When the unemployment rate spiked during the spring of 2020, jobs that required a college degree declined more than those that didn’t, and new college graduates were hit the hardest. Not only did postings for bachelor’s level jobs fall the most, but entry-level jobs also dropped farthest and fastest.”

The AAF explains, “Over the next decade, the nation as a whole could face a shortage of about 765,000 needed workers with the skills that come from an associate degree or some college.”

Here is where Gen Z can pounce, having witnessed firsthand that even during the pandemic, skills-based careers are a viable option, and could even be considered a safer career path alternative to a 4-year degree … and just as lucrative.

Optimism and Opportunities

The National Association of Manufacturers recently released its final Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey of 2020 and found that “74.2% of manufacturers responding to the survey felt positive about their own company’s outlook, up from 66% last quarter.” The NAM also says, “According to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 525,000 job openings in manufacturing in October, a record high.” 

Unfilled positions are not only abundant in manufacturing, but also cybersecurity. The Herjavec Group’s 2019/2020 Cybersecurity Jobs Report indicates, “The U.S. has a total employed cybersecurity workforce consisting of 715,000 people, and there are currently 314,000 unfilled positions.” 

This leaves the pathway wide open for Gen Z to take advantage of this labor shortage if paved with skills-based training. Because according to Undersecretary at the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, Stewart Knox, “It’s not about just who you knew or who you might have an in with to get that job. It is based on skills.”

The Future Ahead

A greater focus on skills was part of the former Trump administration’s agenda that is continuing under Biden’s. The House of Representatives recently passed the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021 — a bill Jobs for the Future reports will bring apprenticeships into the modern era, investing $3.5 billion over the next five years to strengthen these programs and bring in a new generation of skilled workers. 

It’s safe to say that while vaccines are bringing the pandemic to a close, skills-based careers just busted wide open.

New Day, Same Skills Gap

It’s safe to say that it’s been a year of changes. From how we interact with others to the ways in which we work, nothing looks the same as it used to. Things are set to change even more with a new administration entering the white house. 

However, one thing remains the same, the need to close America’s skills gap. 

2020: A Year of Ups and Downs

Industry Week explains that “The coronavirus has exposed the vulnerabilities of our modern economy, forcing thousands of businesses to shutter and putting millions of Americans and people around the world at financial risk.”

We couldn’t agree more. Since February of 2020, employment in manufacturing is down 621,000 and other industries are feeling the affects of the Coronavirus as well. Not only that, but manufacturing productivity has also fallen in 2020. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Manufacturing labor productivity decreased at a 15.5-percent annual rate in the second quarter of 2020, as output fell 47.0 percent and hours worked dropped 37.3 percent. These were the largest quarterly declines ever recorded (data begin in 1987).”

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There will be a light at the end of the tunnel and things will eventually begin to improve. Employment in manufacturing increased during October by 38,000 jobs. 

While earnings have somewhat decreased, hours for existing employees have increased. The BLS says, “Average weekly hours of all employees rose 0.3 hour in October to 40.5 hours. For production workers, the average workweek increased 0.1 hour to 41.2 hours.”

New Administration, Same Focus

Earlier last year, President Trump’s administration shifted its emphasis on hiring for the country’s biggest employer, the federal government. According to SHRM, the executive order “directs important, merit-based reforms that will replace degree-based hiring with skills- and competency-based hiring.” Trump’s move echoed what some in the industry, such as Elon Musk, are already moving toward. 

Musk doesn’t require college degrees to work at Tesla. Business Insider reports “Rather than a degree from a prestigious university, Musk said he looked for ‘evidence of exceptional ability’ in an employee.”

President-elect Biden’s administration will also share the Trump administration’s and Musk’s focus on skills. On November 9th, a new federal workforce policy agenda for President-elect Joe Biden and Congress was released by the National Skills Coalition. Training partnerships and apprenticeship will be a focus for the plan.

The National Skills Coalition says, “President-elect Biden has called for a $50 billion investment in workforce training, including investments in industry-led training partnerships and expanding apprenticeship opportunities. Biden has also proposed providing two years of tuition-free community college for recent high school graduates and adults who may need retraining to advance in their careers or transition to new industries.”

What’s Next?

Props to our government for their efforts in helping to close the skills gap. But they alone can’t wrangle the decades-old elephant in the room: How to reach the next workforce generation in ways that make advanced manufacturing careers appealing to them. The business-as-usual ways of workforce recruiting through websites and shiny brochures don’t resonate with Gen Z. If we don’t innovate now, we risk losing them forever. 

COVID-19 has given us increasing opportunities to train and reach Gen Z in their digital world, and reversing Gen Z’s ‘Plan B’ mindset regarding manufacturing careers should be no different. By leveraging their phones already in their hands, modern manufacturing can employ interactive educational technology to help Gen Z develop real-world work skills through interactive, digital experiences that will engage with industry and expose users to existing opportunities.  

The most revered workforce in the world uses gaming for training, upskilling, soft skills, and for recruitment! “America’s Army” is the official game for the US Army that lets players try out virtual missions, in some cases for real. This is augmented, tactical training with quantifiable metrics and a sophisticated interface that helps save lives, whether on the front lines or not. 

It’s a new day, America. Let the games begin.

Games That Teach vs. Games That Change

Educational gaming isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. There are those that teach curriculum, and then there are those that change behavior. You learn from both, but the user experience can be profoundly different from one another, and their reach arguably disparate. 

To better understand this difference, let’s first look at a game that aims to teach. 

Teaching In Gen Z’s Digital World

Gone are the days of the ‘rot-your-brain’ video game mindset, and schools have made great strides in using games such as Minecraft: Education Edition as a teachable medium. Minecraft explains that “Educators visiting the Minecraft: Education Edition community site will find existing lesson plans on pixel art, grid paper to plan student work, and even a Minecraft world set up as a blank canvas for students to engage in creative expression.” 

Kim Bennett, a teacher in Cherokee County, Georgia, uses Minecraft to teach business to her students. She says, “Students collaborate in a Minecraft world to actually build and create their businesses—restaurants, food trucks, factories, sports facilities, to name just a few.” 

This is an innovative move in finding meaningful ways to connect kids with career-centric curriculum in a classroom. And while video games in school aren’t new, they’re use has been accelerated as the pandemic persists. 

But what about outside of the classroom? 

The New World of Gaming

Gen Z is influencing the gaming world in a big way and they are vastly different in this space than their predecessors. For one, the majority of Gen Z, 98%, own a smartphone, and much of their gaming behavior is mobile, rather than tethered to a computer or console. And contrary to the stereotype of gaming as an isolating activity, Gen Z doesn’t game to be alone; they actually game to be with others. This generation has grown up in a socially broader digital world that allows them to form online communities inside of school, and out.

So as we look at those teachable skills needed outside of the traditional reading, writing, and math, like soft skills, mobile gaming opens up a new set of opportunities to reach our future generation outside of the classroom via a medium they’re already engaging in, not “having” to engage in. 

Games That Change

Curriculum and class dynamics drive the user experience in games like Minecraft: Education Edition. And while the learning experience may be more appealing than a textbook, work still comes first, fun second.

In games that change behavior, gameplay takes the lead and curriculum second. Look at the globally popular Pokémon GO, for example, where users navigate the real world using an in-game map that allows them to visit PokéStops to gather items, battle other users’ Pokémon, and to catch Pokémon using augmented reality. And while the app may appear to lead a wild goose chase,  one recent study’s findings indicate “that the surveyed players changed their behaviors while or after playing Pokémon GO. The respondents reported being more social, expressed more positive emotions, found more meaningfulness in their routines, and had increased motivation to explore their surroundings.” Well, guess what? Those align with 21st century skills every school district is also tasked with teaching: Work Ethic, Socializing, Strengthening of Social Bonds, Better Self-Treatment, and Collaboration. And with bragging rights of over 55 million installs in 2019, the size of that “classroom” is pretty astounding.

The Future is Edutainment

Games come in all different types and categories, coining a new umbrella term,   “edutainment”, defined as “the English neologism that indicates the forms of playful communication aimed at teaching.” And while educational games like Minecraft: Education Edition are powerful in a classroom environment for math, history, science, language art, and visual art, they’re still not enough as our skills gap continues to rise to a global talent shortage that might reach 85.2 million people by 2030. Games like Pokémon GO, if intentionally designed with the right balance of fun and faculty, can accelerate the development of soft skills that educational games don’t focus on. Those, paired with academic knowledge, can propel Gen Z much further. 

With both types of games at play, it’s safe to say that edutainment adds up to a big win when it comes to preparing Gen Z to be the future workforce that ushers us into the modern era.

South Carolina Business Review: Attracting Factory Workers with Gaming

According to some national surveys, 75% of Generation Z show little or no interest in working for manufacturers and 70% of parents discourage manufacturing as a career.  So where will a manufacturing state like ours get its workforce?  Our next guest believes that video games are the answer.

Mike Switzer interviews Tina Zwolinski, CEO and founder of skillsgapp in Greenville, SC.

Culture Counts: How to Attract Your Next Workforce Generation

Think about this: 10,000 baby boomers will be reaching retirement age each day for the next 14 years. This leaves a lot of room for Gen Z, who will soon comprise over a third of the world’s population, to potentially represent a quarter of the world’s workforce in the years to come. So while manufacturers are faced with an unprecedented amount of jobs to fill, they’d be prudent to skew their recruiting efforts younger, specifically toward Gen Z. 

This generation thinks about company culture much differently than baby boomers, however. With manufacturers competing for the same pools of talent, they’ll need to adapt their company cultures to effectively attract Gen Z, and also to keep them. 

Diversity and Mentorship Matters

Gen Z is the most diverse generation to date. Catalyst cites a Deloitte survey that says, “Gen Z respondents were more likely to stay with organizations they perceived as having a diverse and inclusive workforce. Diversity of educational background was the top area Gen Z respondents said organizations need to work on followed by age, ethnicity, and gender.”

Not only does Gen Z value diversity, but they also want mentoring. Nicholas Wyman says, “Mentoring is an important part of a successful skill building program. As a management tool, it is one of the most effective ways to transfer organizational knowledge as well as job-specific skills. Unlike more traditional supervisory management, mentoring creates a climate of support, guidance, and teaching that boosts employee engagement and productivity.”

Mobile is Their Medium 

Gen Z is made up of digital natives who have never known life without the internet, so a company culture that embraces how they use technology is essential in attracting and keeping them. This generation’s lives are centered around their smartphones and Kronos says, “they expect technology on the job to deliver that consumer grade experience.” Not only that, but the Pew Research Center says, “95% of 13- to 17-year-olds have access to a smartphone, and a similar share (97%) use at least one of seven major online platforms.”

Work/Life Balance is BIG

A healthy company culture must not tether Gen Z to an unnecessary level of work-related communication and connectedness, however. Even though they use technology throughout the day, Forbes explains “Today’s ever-expanding work tech—designed to increase employee connectivity and productivity in the age of remote work—is a key culprit in the stress and burnout epidemic.” 

A company culture that allows them time to detox from technology and lessen their connectedness to work every now and then could help reduce burnout, and provide them with a healthy work/life balance. According to Forbes, “Zapier’s Digital Natives Report found that a majority of Gen-Z (69%) and Millennial (73%) employees have experienced job burnout.” 

The good news is that their jobs mean a lot to this generation and they want to be given the chance to make a difference, but they also need time outside of their jobs to support more of what makes them tick. 

It’s Time To Look Within

Our beloved boomers are retiring, yes. But the generation that follows brings with them the opportunity to abandon same-ol-same-ol’ business  practices. If manufacturers can create a culture that embraces Gen Z, they, in turn, will embrace them back.

New Ways to Skill

The pre-pandemic rules of work and school have given way to not only a more digital world, but also new opportunities. As such, education’s structure isn’t as rigid as it used to be. Schools have been forced to implement creative ways to not only bring education to students, but also bring them together safely, all without cannibalizing required curriculum.

Why shouldn’t manufacturers do the same?

New Opportunities

COVID-19 presents manufacturers the opportunity to bring their training to Gen Z, rather than Gen Z bringing themselves to manufacturers. 

Education and training structures are not likely to go back to what they once were. That’s why manufacturers will need to carve out new opportunities to engage in not only this next generation of workforce, but in content that resonates with them. After all, Gen Z is adapting to learning in their new, digital environment. Manufacturers simply need to catch up.

Take Felling Trailers in Minnesota as an example. Bonnie Radjenovich, a member of their operations team says, “We’re advertising like crazy on Facebook and Instagram, and we just can’t get enough candidates in the door.” This was a step in the right direction. But here’s the rub, it isn’t enough anymore for companies to simply advertise to Gen Z on social platforms where they don’t necessarily live.

Skilling Gen Z

One new way to skill is by bringing training to Gen Z on their mobile devices through creative gamification that interests and excites them, and on platforms that engage  them.

Executive Director of UNICEF, Henrietta Fore, offers an important insight. She says, “If this time of COVID has taught us anything it’s that you need to adapt to the world as it is around you and the world is changing and so you have to change with it.”

By catering to Gen Z’s current style of learning, manufacturers have the opportunity to create future talent pipelines they didn’t previously have access to. On the flip side, students who previously didn’t have access to in-person training can now get a jumpstart on a career path through training within gamified apps. This symbiotic relationship could especially thrive in America’s rural areas, where access has historically been challenging.

Manufacturers Must Seize the Opportunity

The Pew Research Center indicates that “95% of 13- to 17-year-olds have access to a smartphone.” Not only is there a widespread network already in place to reach Gen Z, but their usage of smartphones is only likely to increase due to the switch to online learning. This opens the door for us to bring more meaningful play to users and according to appannie.com, “Spend on mobile games across all app stores projected to top $100 billion in 2020.” Reaching Gen Z at an early age and training them where they live will lay the groundwork for a reliable workforce now, and down the road.

The opportunity has never been more ripe for manufacturers to adapt to a new way of building future talent pipelines. Or more fun.