Tina Zwolinski on Being Mission-Driven to Reach Underserved Youth Through Gaming

This post is part of The Founder Factor, where you go behind the scenes with South Carolina’s most impactful entrepreneurs so that you can discover the strategies, ideas, and mindsets you need to unlock your next business breakthrough. The Founder Factor is brought to you by Designli (South Carolina’s top app development firm) and Word of Web

Stepping into the world of gaming to help the younger generation have a brighter future with more job opportunities, Zwolinski has broken the barriers of career awareness and access through innovative technology. Read full blog here.

In 1997, Tina Zwolinski launched a branding and marketing agency that she spent the next 23 years growing and expanding. While working with Millennials and then Gen Z in the marketing arena, she began to see the pressure put on youth to follow the high school to 4-year college path as the only solution to finding a career. Zwolinski saw this on a deeper scale as her nonprofit work took her to underserved youth who weren’t shown the opportunities out there. “I began to ask, ‘What can we do differently, and what would that look like? But I never would have thought the answer would mean exiting my company,” she says.

But in 2020, that’s exactly what she did. Exiting her business, Zwolinski was on a mission to connect youth to the millions of career opportunities that didn’t require the traditional 4-year degree path. This led her to form her startup company called skillsgapp, which produces Skillionaire Games™. “Foundationally, we are a workforce pipeline development company,” she explains. “But as our mission, we connect youth to life-changing careers through game-changing play.” 

According to Zwolinski, students make decisions about what they “want to be” based on what they see, and in schools, they only see a select few careers like doctors, lawyers, and teachers. However, skillsgapp helps create career and pathway awareness for students through 10 different games, all of which focus on in-demand careers that are often overlooked or stigmatized. “We introduce careers to a student from entrance to exit,” she says. “They are put in environments that let them see themselves, as any gender or race, in various careers, showing them what average salaries are, what local colleges have programs for these fields, and practicing the skills needed for that career. For some students, going through a game means they are ready to sit for certification, allowing them to go straight into a job.”  Read full blog here.

UMASS Boston, Verizon, and Skillsgapp: Department of Commerce $2.97M Grant to Enhance Digital Connections in Minority Communities

UMass Boston has launched a pilot project to increase broadband access and additional services for students and anchor communities with funding from a two-year, $2.97 million grant from the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program. UMass Boston is one of 12 schools to receive the NTIA funding designated for Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs).

Vice Provost for Research Bala Sundaram and Associate CIO Apurva Mehta conceived the UMass Boston project, Addressing Digital Access Gaps in Education (ADAGE), during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early in the pandemic, the university was able to pivot from traditional classroom instruction to synchronous online classes and implement a Chromebook loaner program. For segments of the student population, though, participating in online learning came with a serious obstacle: a lack of access to high-speed internet.

Sundaram explained: “As a university with majority-minority demographics, the UMass Boston community is disproportionately affected by uneven broadband access. We designed ADAGE to reduce the technology access gaps we saw growing during the pandemic.”

ADAGE’s three-pronged approach includes increasing the university’s capacity to offer hybrid/flexible courses, expanding access to high-speed internet and devices, and exposing students to technology career paths.

“We anticipate highly promising results from ADAGE. This two-year pilot study will give us the opportunity to evaluate just how much impact having access to broadband, computers, Hyflex learning, and introductions to IT career pathways has for our students and anchor communities,” said Mehta.

The university is strengthening the campus technology infrastructure by retrofitting classrooms for synchronous online courses. HyFlex is a solution for driving student success because it offers remote and in-person learning options to the diverse student community. The project goal is to convert 58 classrooms, a third of the classrooms on campus, to support the HyFlex modality. Studies have shown that students in HyFlex classrooms perform as well as their face-to-face peers academically, while also benefiting from having agency in how they learn and participate in their classes.

Through a partnership with Verizon’s Digital Inclusion Program, 200 students will receive a Verizon Jetpack (mobile hotspot device). The students will also receive a Microsoft Surface Go computer, and gamified content created by experts in fields such as app development and information literacy and security.

One hundred families from UMass Boston’s anchor communities will be enrolled in Verizon’s Digital Inclusion Program to receive Jetpacks, too. Participating families will also receive Microsoft Go computers and technical training. Families will be selected with the help of four UMass Boston centers active in the anchor communities: Institute for Asian American StudiesMauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and PolicyWilliam Monroe Trotter Institute, and Institute for New England Native American Studies.

To create workforce and career pathway awareness, ADAGE will leverage UMass Boston’s professional development courses combined with a broad range of technology skills trainings through platforms such as Skillsgapp, LinkedIn Learning, and Apple’s Everyone Can Code and SWIFT App Development.

These learning opportunities will enhance students’ skills in fields such as coding and create awareness of specific career opportunities. For example, Skillsgapp, accelerates and democratizes workforce development through engaging mobile gameplay. Skillsgapp games, which are available in English and Spanish, provide awareness about careers in cybersecurity by simulating tasks and scenarios that succeed in being informative, at least in part, because they are so entertaining. Practical details about cybersecurity careers, training, and salaries are integrated into the games.

Go to News Release.

Gamification: The “It” Word in Workforce Development

The term gamification first appeared when Nick Pelling coined the “deliberately ugly” word in 2002, when tasked with developing a game-like interface for ATM and vending machines.

But gamification, while not a part of our lexicon until recently, has been around for centuries and played a role in significant advancements. The Periodic Table of Elements, an iconic symbol in science, was created by Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev. He wrote the names and properties of the sixty-five known elements on individual cards, hoping to predict new ones. After falling asleep at his desk while moving the cards around, he awoke to see the repeating pattern in the elements’ behavior, making him one of the first scientists to use gamification to complete an educational task. 

Gamification in Skills Development

Fast forward to this century’s technology, and the leap to gamified skills development is a natural one. As Dmitri Mendeleev demonstrated, games leverage the human tendency to influence one’s thinking process as a method to architecture human behavior to induce engagement, innovation, and productivity.

  1. According to the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, gamification increased:
    • 12.23% in retention
    • 7.03% overall performance 
  1. The U.S. Department of Defense uses gamification to safely train soldiers due to an astounding:
    • 11% increase in knowledge recall 
    • 14% increase in procedural knowledge
    • 9% greater retention of knowledge
  1. Scientific studies show that students who learn with gamified content that includes prizes push course completion from under 20% to 90%.

Gamification in Workforce Development

Engaging youth about careers with mobile gaming has also already proven to be a valuable tool in workforce development, as it offers a unique opportunity to engage with the next generation in job exploration using their favorite form of entertainment. In fact, a mobile, gamified approach to workforce development checks just about every box in recruiting today’s sustainable, vetted talent pipeline. Here’s why:

  1. Mobile games reach a broader, diverse audience, including those who may not be interested in or have access to traditional career exploration resources, including rural and inner-city communities.
  2. Players can engage in experiential career discovery, allowing them to engage in simulated work environments and learn about different career paths in a hands-on experience. 
  3. Industry-relevant skills are developed, including problem-solving, critical thinking, and teamwork. 
  4. Mobile technology can directly connect players with post-secondary pathways and employers around them based on interest and proficiencies and their location.

What more?

  • 95% of Gen Z have access to smartphones
  • It’s where they spend more than 7+ hours a day 
  • 90% of them classify themselves as mobile gamers

Mobile gaming presents an unprecedented opportunity for industry to reach their future talent pool wherever they are, on their phones, with gamified content that engages, influences and skills. Industry videos watched only once, annual job fairs, or overly-tasked educators with limited time to invest in career awareness are not enough to fill the talent shortage estimated to cost industry a $1.2 trillion loss this decade. By making career exploration fun, accessible, and interactive, mobile games can inspire young people to pursue careers in a variety of industries and build a strong, diverse workforce for the future.

Interested in a workforce game demo? See how states are using free-to-play mobile gamification to create awareness and access for youth to skilled careers in their own backyard.

America’s Workforce: In Need of a Rescue, or a Reset?

By Tina Zwolinski, Co-Founder and CEO, skillsgapp //

Long before the pandemic, there was a need to ‘reset’ the systems we have in place for preparing our future workforce with the critical skills needed to meet industry demand, specifically within advanced manufacturing. COVID recovery certainly sped up this conversation, and funding, but an actionable focus is still needed if we’re going to fill the ever-growing skills gap America currently faces.

Thinking earlier in the workforce pipeline should be priority one for all of us, including the policymakers who represent us. Focusing on in- and out-of-school development opportunities is imperative, but this can’t be left on the shoulders of educators alone. Silos need to be leveled in order to allow collaboratives to thrive in rethinking current workforce development initiatives. And those initiatives need to be a lot more innovative than the traditional websites, videos and career fairs.

A Call for Collaboration  

The innovation and collaboration I’m calling for, one that can have the greatest impact, will ultimately be forged between education, industry, and government. 

The U.S. Department of Education’s Secretary Cardona recently shared a vision on improving our education system by promoting newly accessible pathways through higher education, inevitably leading, it was argued, to successful careers. This involves reimagining the connection between K-12, higher education, and the workforce by in part collaborating to a greater degree with the Department of Labor and Department of Commerce, to invest in career preparation programs that meet the needs of today’s economy. 

This is exactly the kind of collaboration, from the federal to state level, that needs to be replicated – one working in harmony for a successful reset. While much of the funding from the America Rescue Plan appears to be focused on post-secondary education, which is needed, there is also a great need for workforce development-oriented programming in elementary, middle, and high schools; this is mission-critical if we are going to get a chance to impact post-secondary success.

Leveraging Technology 

In late 2020, a survey of Gen Z (ages 19-24) was conducted by Ernst & Young, in collaboration with JA Worldwide, where students were asked “how the education system could be improved” – 59% of Gen Z respondents suggested that there should be more focus placed on real-life work; 57% said there should be more focus on professional mentorship. This actionable intelligence reveals a generational demographic that values true-to-life work experiences as a means for them to embrace the changing working world. With technology, they are already able to navigate a lot on their own. And with the right, innovative tools, they could even advocate for their own futures if they are connected to pathways into these careers. 

The up-and-coming workforce craves career awareness and ultimately, guided access to pathways and industry. Technology is the answer. Funding is needed to support broader CTE programming, in-class career learning driven by industry, and funding supported by the government. There also needs to be an open-minded approach to trying new approaches with novel technology, both in and out of the classroom, as this is a digital generation that learns best via immersive experiences and by doing things with their hands.

Earlier this year, during a Congress-led Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Workforce Development Subcommittee hearing, Eric Fanning, President and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), stated that there are several ways in which Congress could address America’s workforce challenges – One way is investing more in STEM education. Fanning then asked Congress to “think differently” about “…establishing a program where activities conducted by contractors to support STEM education be considered as allowable community service activities, for the purposes of determining the allowability of cost on a government contract.” 

Fanning agrees that reaching students and families earlier on regarding career exploration and pathway access, even in elementary school, could make a tremendous impact. 

Let’s face it – our youth are on their phones for up to 7 hours a day – providing engaging and yes, educational tools that they can use in and out of school on those phones would be a big step in the right direction in setting up, from the classroom to the household, modules spotlighting career pathways.

Dedicated  focus on the under-served 

After-school programming provides a key actionable area of focus with an opportunity to engage the under-served, particularly in career awareness and pathway access.  There is currently a bill in Congress, the Youth Workforce Readiness Act of 2021, that, if passed, could provide much-needed momentum for the reset I’m calling for, from Washington and across the country.  Approval of this bill will impact the most needed, the underserved, which would then have a dynamic and correlative impact on filling our skills gap.

2022-era Public-private-partnerships (PPP) between the federal government, industry and State by State academia will move the needle for our next generation. The most cost-effective and efficient means to broker positive disruption in our workforce’s development is no question, through technological innovation.

As students move up the pipeline, closer to entering a workforce already afflicted by ‘Great Resignation’, one that now direly needs them, access to apprenticeships and career pathways rectifies our broken workforce supply chain, forming a singular bridge to connect students into our economy and in doing so, boosting our economy, with vigor.

Let’s think differently about the age that we start career awareness, alongside the tools and technology we embrace – in and out of school – and allow for the funding of innovative initiatives that can close the skills gap and connect youth, especially the underserved, to their own life-changing careers. 

But more importantly, let’s together ‘hit reset’, by moving on some of these conversations that are before Congress right now, so that workforce and skills gaps can shift from a state of challenge to solution.

Any additional solutions or ideas for an effective “reset” of America’s workforce plan?

EdTech Digest: Behind A Workforce Game Changer for Gen Z

If states, regions, and industry all want the same thing—a qualified workforce pipeline—then how can they get it? In other words, what’s it gonna take?

One way is by transforming skills development, career awareness, and job opportunities into mobile gaming technology. That’s just what Tina Zwolinski, CEO and founder of skillsgapp is doing.

“We are revolutionizing how the next generation engages in, and views, skills-based careers at an earlier age,” she says. To accomplish all this, she works with state and regional economic development agencies, K-12 and post-secondary education, and industry (Automotive Manufacturing, Aerospace Manufacturing , Cybersecurity & IT, Life Sciences & Healthcare).

“With 10,000 Baby Boomers reaching retirement age every day, attracting both middle and high schoolers today is paramount in securing our workforce and economy of tomorrow,” says Zwolinski.

“By meeting Gen Z wherever they are – on their phones – through fun, mobile skills training customized to go and grow with them, we are building a more qualified workforce for years to come.”

Here, Zwolinski sat down for a long-form discussion with EdTech Digest to talk about the bigger picture and how, despite the gap, everything fits together.  Read More.

International Business Times: Gaming Your Way To Well-Paying Jobs

By Duggan Flanakin  // For at least 2,500 years, recreational gaming has been blamed by some for the moral and intellectual decline of societies. The Buddha himself is reported to have said that “some recluses…while living on food provided by the faithful, continue addicted to games and recreations; that is to say…games on boards with eight or with 10 rows of squares.”

However recently, many have come to see great opportunities for turning video gaming into a positive activity, even one that brings real-world benefits. Adam Uzialko writes that while video games are often seen as a parent’s worst nightmare, an avid gamer can turn the “nightmare” into a lucrative career. Uzialko’s focus was limited largely to jobs in the gaming industry, though he did suggest that top gamers often do well in information technology.

Today, half of the four million who quit jobs during the “great resignation” are millennials and Generation Z.

Many of them are looking for jobs with better benefits, higher pay, flexibility, and fulfillment, but all too often in the wrong places. Only three in 10 parents, for example, consider manufacturing as a good career path for their children. Lack of knowledge and misconceptions about the trades can lead parents to steer their kids away from these programs, when vocational training might be a surer path to a stable job. Read More.

GSA Business Report: Life science app Rad Lab offers in-game, real life incentives

For those raising the next generation of workforce talent at home, it may be a no-brainer that 12-year-olds are more likely to learn about future career opportunities from TikTok, YouTube or Duolingo than LinkedIn.

Yet much of the online conversation surrounding new career developments remains resigned to the adult corporate sphere.

Skillsgapp, a Greenville-based app platform, seeks to broaden that conversation to include the audience making those first steps toward a career.

The startup offers apps for a variety of fields including skilled trades, aerospace and advanced manufacturing, as well as the fast-growing life science industry. SkillsGapp’s newest app, RadLab, gamifies life science careers for middle schoolers. Read More

Workforce gaming apps company Skillsgapp adds Montgomery as People Engagement & Experience Manager

Soft skills and middle-skills gaming app company skillsgapp has hired Jennie Montgomery as its People Engagement & Experience Manager. The new position acts as a liaison to help youth (middle- to high-school aged) explore potential post-secondary career pathways and industries, helps ensure that skillsgapp’s Skillionaire Games meet the needs of youth, especially the underserved, and encourages engagement with the company’s skills development apps. The position also connects with school counselors, parents, teachers, and other youth leaders and mentors, as well as works with local businesses and other organizations to create online and offline incentives that include promo items, events, and experiences that players can win as they achieve new game levels and grow their career awareness and skills. Read More.

Gen Z Talks “Skilled” Careers: What They Wish They Knew – 2 of 3

Opportunities in Advanced Manufacturing and Skilled Trades

In an independent survey conducted last month, high schoolers, college students, and recent graduates—in other words, Gen Z—have made their voices heard when it comes to careers. In the first post of this three-part series, they’ve exposed a major deficiency in the modern education system: a lack of career awareness and readiness. This second article in the series will be underscoring a different contributor to the same problem and discussing its past, present, and future as we strive to prepare our up-and-coming workforce for satisfying, successful futures.

Outdated assumptions are keeping students from meaningful careers

It turns out that students in middle school, high school, and college are still severely impacted by old industry notions and stigmas. The campaign that arose a few decades back to work smarter and not harder has actually hurt the future of the workforce. We’ve internalized the message over the years, separated “hard” work from “smart” work, and—consequently—steered too many young students away from prosperous futures. Our nation’s “overreliance on this concept” has shaped perceptions of white-collar jobs vs. blue-collar jobs, deeming the former more valuable and desirable than the latter. 

So while it’s true that many students aren’t given enough information about future careers, it’s also true that the information they are intaking about professions like advanced manufacturing and skilled trades are outdated or misguided. 

The perceptions vs. the facts 

Here’s what Gen Z had to say…

Manufacturing perceptions

We asked high schoolers to list some words that come to mind when they hear “manufacturing”:

High school students perceptions of manufacturing jobs

We asked college students to list some words that come to mind when they hear “manufacturing”:

College students perceptions of manufacturing jobs

Manufacturing realities

  • Good pay. As of March 17th, 2022, the average salary for a worker in advanced manufacturing is $76,258.
  • Supporting our country. “Rebuilding our manufacturing economy is an essential component to strengthening our communities and creating opportunity for all Americans,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo says.
  • Supporting you. “Contrary to the decades-long, ‘dirty hands’ stigma, employees come first in today’s manufacturing,” we explain in this article. “Corporations like West Virginia’s Lockheed Martin offer education assistance, paid time off, and even smoking cessation and wellness programs.”

Skilled trades perceptions

We asked high schoolers to list some words that come to mind when they hear “skilled trades”: 

High school students perceptions of skilled trades jobs

We asked college students to list some words that come to mind when they hear “skilled trades”:

College students perceptions of skilled trades jobs

Skilled trades realities

What can we do? 

Because a staggering “75% of Americans have never had a counselor, teacher, or mentor suggest they look into attending trade or vocational school as a means to a viable career,” most high schoolers are not adequately aware of potential professions, so college seems like a necessity to them. We’re doing a disservice to the younger end of Gen Z, and we’ll continue to fail the generations after them if we don’t change the American belief of “no college, no future.” We need to help students understand their options sooner, because there are plenty out there! “Vocational education is an effective path to prosperity and self-reliance,” as Forbes explains, and it is a path that deserves to be explored by more students, parents, and advisers.

Yes, something needs to change—but it is starting to, with efforts like skillsgapp’s to educate our students on pathways and opportunities. Tina Zwolinski, founder and CEO of skillsgapp, offers three solutions to the problem of workforce development, listing greater broadband access, a reset of educational expectations, and innovations in recruitment and the workplace to reach Gen Z.  

Guidance counselors, let’s really emphasize career planning in high school. Teachers, let’s link students’ interests and talents to real-life applications. Parents, let’s move away from the bachelor’s-degree-or-fail mindset. Industry leaders, make sure you’re reaching these students. We can equip this incoming workforce with better career awareness—if we listen to the concerns and aspirations of Gen Z’s many voices. 


In the third and final part to this series, we’ll have a chance to hear directly from members of Generation Z as they ask important questions and offer advice to others of their age.

Engaging and Skilling Your Future Workforce

Your future workforce was born between 1997 – 2012, which means they will be entering your employ between 2020-2030. So if you don’t have a huge Gen Z employee contingent right now, you soon will. 

This is why there’s been a lot of talk about how to attract and skill this next group of talent, the generation born with a phone in their hand. But few industries have yet to “nail” their recruitment strategies, still reeling from lack of in-person and in-school opportunities for career awareness and pathway support. Even though it seems we’re all back to normal, we’re different, which means our recruitment strategies need to be, too.

Workforce Engagement Challenges – Reach Is at Rock Bottom

  1. Career Awareness – 53% of Gen Z cited not having access to industry programs in school
  2. Pathway Access – 59% have never had a counselor, teacher or mentor suggest trade or vocational schools as viable options
  3. Generational Stigmas – Only 3 in 10 parents would guide their child into manufacturing

Here lies your pivot: Gen Z learns by doing. This may seem counterintuitive based on the last two years spent out of the classroom, but those habits formed behind a screen paradoxically opened up their worlds to meaningful experiences previously unattainable or—in workforce development’s case—overlooked. 

Workforce Engagement Opportunities – Mobile Matters  

Did you know that 96% of Gen Z has access to a cell phone, even in under-resourced areas? In fact, they expect to be able to do most things on their smartphones from wherever they happen to be. Your workforce development programs and initiatives need to be easily accessible from a mobile device and not only that but also considered “active” environments where delivery of content is flexible, collaborative, and gives them the ability to put into practice what they’ve learned. 

Tools and tactics to attract tomorrow’s talent:

  1. Video shorts – Video is second nature to Gen Z, who would generally rather watch a quick explainer video on their phone than read a thick manual
  2. Social and email – The phenomena of global engagement on social media with any generation, particularly Gen Z, is profound, but unlike most of their predecessors, they receive far fewer emails per day, making “clutter” a non-issue for outreach 
  3. Virtual events – Live events are always impactful, but they’re not scalable, and they can’t go wherever you go
  4. Gamification90% of Gen Z classifies themselves as gamers, and according to neuroscience studies, play is the most effective way to increase engagement and performance. 

Skilling your Future Workforce

The same mobile phenomena holds true with skills training. According to Emily Alonso, consultant for WorkforceReady, a mobile-accessible platform that offers self-paced, online work readiness and soft skills courses and certificates to Gen Z has been quantifiably profound over this last year. In a survey of 2,000 participants in the LA area, respondents reported a 200% increase in confidence in their critical thinking after completing a corresponding online, self-paced training module. One Gen Z-er reported after completing such virtual training, “Aside from the tasks assigned, we were able to choose other ones to help us with our future job choices and interests. I really liked that.” This is a workforce training initiative that is 100% free to the user, and 100% available anywhere at any time. 

Got 30 minutes?

To learn more about how to engage and skill your next workforce, hear directly from skillsgapp’s CEO Tina Zwolinski and Cornerstone Ondemand foundation’s Director of engagement Amy Haggarty during this free, pre-recorded webinar…to watch at any time, from wherever you are.

  • Discover ways to engage with your workforce pipeline earlier
  • Scale career awareness and pathway access, especially for the underserved
  • Gain a competitive advantage for recruitment supported by meaningful data