Meet Workforce Development’s Secret Ingredient: The Avatar

Do you know one reason so many jobs continue to go unfilled? Kids can’t “see” themselves working in them. They don’t know what opportunities exist, as we discuss here, and even when they do, certain careers might feel unachievable, unreachable. When a student can insert a representation of themselves into environments that exemplify industries like cybersecurity or the life sciences, they understand that they can have a place there.

Serita Acker, an internationally recognized creator of academic programs to increase underrepresented students in the STEM fields believes it is imperative that we meet our youth where they are when it comes to career awareness, specifically in minority populations. “Where do our youth spend most of their time? Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, video games, anywhere their phone goes. However, do our youth realize that computer scientists develop the software for these platforms and that computer engineers create and design the electronics that they enjoy so much?” The overall lack of STEM role models of color in media and entertainment is in part to blame, according to Acker. “The last time I watched a movie or TV show about a person of color who was a scientist, engineer, or mathematician was ‘Hidden Figures’ and that came out in 2016. Students need to see people who look like them portrayed in these fields.”

Enter the Avatar

The Proteus Effect describes a phenomenon in which the behavior of an individual, within virtual worlds, is changed by the characteristics of their avatar. This change is due to the individual’s knowledge about the behaviors typically associated with those characteristics. Like the adjective protean (meaning versatile or mutable), the concept’s name is an allusion to the shape-changing abilities of the Greek god Proteus. The Proteus effect was first introduced by researchers Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailens at Stanford University in June 2007, as an examination of the behavioral effects of changing a user’s embodied avatar.

In another study conducted this year, researchers “consistently found … high degrees of congruence between the respective characteristics of the avatar, the actual self, and the ideal self.” Similarly, a 2019 study found that “people balancing the motives of self-verification and self-enhancement design their avatars to be similar to their real selves.” The fact that digital avatars most often reflect the user is critical knowledge for gamified technology designed to connect kids to careers and pathways—provided with the chance to present themselves how they wish, players take on an active role and self-realize in the game, especially within a safe environment void of biases or judgment.

This agency and expression is especially important for young players in minority groups who are often underrepresented in the workforce. Kids learn by watching and mimicking, so if they never see anyone who looks like them in a particular field, the possibility of that future is not easily imagined. Equipped with a DEI-minded avatar creator like in Cyber Watchdog or Rad Lab, though, students have the ability to visualize themselves in career environments, which puts them one step closer to attaining success and narrowing the skills gap.

When you play video games, do you customize your avatar to look like you, or someone different?

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?

Skillsgapp Co-Founder And Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Cynthia Jenkins Joins Girls Inc.’s Project Accelerate

Cynthia Jenkins, Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of skillsgapp, a company that develops free-to-play mobile gaming apps that help middle and high school-aged+ youth achieve life-changing career awareness and localized pathway access, as well as develop the soft skills necessary to pursue jobs in skills-based industries through game-changing play, has announced a strategic partnership with the Girls Inc.’s Project Accelerate mentorship program, a pilot undertaken in Orange County, California.

The Girls Inc.’s Project Accelerate mentorship program seeks to close the gender equity gap by supporting young women through post-secondary education and networking into the workforce, ensuring that they can achieve influential leadership positions in the process.

Project Accelerate was funded by Equality Can’t Wait, an initiative launched by Pivotal Ventures, Melinda Gates’ investment and incubation enterprise, to expedite progress toward gender equality in the U.S. The initiative garnered additional support from Mackenzie Scott and The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, awarding $40 million to the organizations or coalitions of organizations offering the most compelling proposals to help expand women’s empowerment and influence in the U.S. by 2030. Read More.

“Durable” Skills vs. Soft Skills: Is There a Difference?

The term “soft skills” has always been somewhat of an oxymoron, as these skills are arguably the hardest to attain. The most sought-after professional capabilities in just about any industry—problem-solving, leadership, critical thinking, and personal skills like teamwork, flexibility, adaptability, and creativity—are hard to measure and even harder to teach. 

That’s why this misnomer has been given a new name: durable skills. 

They’re desired everywhere. An analysis of 82 million job postings conducted last year by America Succeeds reveals that 7 of the 10 most requested skills are durable skills. The report goes on to say that “employers seek durable skills … 3.8x more frequently than the top 5 technical or hard skills” in every location, every industry sector, and every educational attainment level.

“Skills aren’t soft or hard[;] they’re durable or perishable.” –Matthew J. Daniel, Guild Education

On top of that, durable skills have staying power (as their name suggests). Research shows that the half-life of a learned skill is 5 years, while the more technical skills start to fade at half of that. Bottom line: skills like programming or digital media will never remain current. That doesn’t mean they should be avoided or relegated, but it does mean that they can’t be the only talents in a person’s career arsenal. Due to the very nature of progress, they will never be able to keep up with constant industry changes, forever requiring periodic updates to stay abreast. Meanwhile, durable skills like critical thinking, collaboration and communication will never go out of style—no matter the profession nor the year. Take the cybersecurity sector, for example—arguably one of the most consistently transformative—those particular soft skills have become known as the “Three Soft C’s” … and considered by some the best defense against cyber attacks.

America Succeeds explains that their 2021 market insights “clearly demonstrate workforce demand for durable skills.” The pandemic has underscored the importance of students’ development of soft skills in addition to academic knowledge and technical skills. An emphasis on durable skills will continue to strengthen our workforce and society, especially as technology rapidly innovates yet continually fails to emulate humanity’s dynamic capacity to feel and respond. As Forbes indicates in a recent article, machines still can’t replace “human” skills.

Now—more than ever—we need complex communication skills that enable us to work with individuals from diverse cultural and lingual backgrounds. We need acknowledgment of and appreciation for diversity in all its forms. We need awareness of talent, skills, and interests. We need the ability to find purpose, recognize talents, set goals, and proactively seek opportunities to pursue those ambitions. All of these skills represent a human-to-human aptitude, and that’s because durable skills are the skills “that technology cannot displace,” the ones that are “critical to creating positive work environments.” These are skills that are truly built to last. 

What durable skill do you value most in your employees?

Gen Z Trends for the Workforce WIN

By John Zwolinski, Chief Experience Officer at skillsgapp //

Gen Z, the topic of countless musings and a multitude of opinions, is coming to the workplace in large numbers – what will that mean for the future of work? When considering how they will impact the workforce, three big questions come to mind:

How do you attract them?

How do you motivate and inspire them?

How do you retain them?

In order to answer these questions well, it’s worth spending some time digging in and getting to know them. Below you will find a recent Gen Z trends survey from PIPER|SANDLER. Take a look and test yourself by asking how many of these responses you would have predicted. What surprised you? What does it mean, and how could it help you create more engaging conversations and experiences for your younger workforce?

Gen Z video consumption stats
Gen Z top clothing brands stats
Gen Z top restaurants stats
Gen Z top celebrity stats

Learn more stats on Gen Z here.

While the trends in this survey provide some general generational insight, remember that they are individuals first and not a monolith. Like any generation, they can’t all be lumped together and assumed to share the exact same attributes. Was EVERYONE in the ’60s a hippie? Did EVERY high schooler in the ’80s wear a Members Only jacket? Of course not, and there are a variety of intentional initiatives to consider to gain better individual insight and input from your Gen Z team members, such as forming “shadow boards.” 

“A lot of companies struggle with two apparently unrelated problems: disengaged younger workers and a weak response to changing market conditions. A few companies have tackled both problems at the same time by creating a “shadow board” — a group of non-executive employees that works with senior executives on strategic initiatives. The purpose? To leverage the younger groups’ insights and to diversify the perspectives that executives are exposed to.”

Gen Z is on the rise, and companies who make the effort to more fully understand their context and motivations will be the winners in employee attraction, productivity, and retention – with profits likely to follow!

What surprised you most about Gen Z from the survey? 

John Zwolinski is a team builder and culture champion with a thirty-year track record in branding, marketing, and education. He spent five years in the public school system as a history teacher and coach and over twenty as a mentor for high-school-age youth. As skillsgapp’s CXO, John is focused on creating exceptional experiences for our people, players, and partners to fulfill our mission of connecting youth to life-changing careers through game-changing play.

Use Case Podcast: Storytelling about skillsgapp with Tina Zwolinski

On this episode of The Use Case Podcast with William Tincup, Tina Zwolinski from skillsgapp talks about using the gamification of workforce development and recruitment for Gen Z applicants and employees. Listen here.

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.

WorkingNation: An avatar-guided career path

Using mobile gaming to help young students understand existing jobs

According to research, 95% of U.S. teens have access to a smartphone. Tina Zwolinski, co-founder and CEO of skillsgapp, says there is great opportunity to introduce young students – via their phones – to career options.

“Skillsgapp is a workforce pipeline initiative and the tool that we use as part of that initiative is mobile gaming,” explains Zwolinski. “We focus on middle school and high school ages. There’s a real opportunity through career awareness to help them navigate. High schoolers have to make decisions on what they’re going to do after school. Those are really important years of influence.”

In addition to soft skills, Zwolinski says game models – which not all have launched – focus on cybersecurity, aerospace, automotive, skilled trades, advanced manufacturing, agriculture, STEM, and life sciences.

Read More:

SCBIZ Magazine: SC Life Sciences Issue

South Carolina’s bustling life sciences industry is the theme for the July/August issue.

According to SCBIO’s 2022 life sciences impact report, the South Carolina’s life science sector has grown by 62% since the study, conducted in 2021, and generates a total economic output of nearly $26 billion each year.

You can read more about the reason behind that growth inside these pages.

You can also learn about innovative life sciences-related companies and cutting-edge research in this issue, including BrightMa Farms, a pioneer in the hemp industry that is eyeing the international market; SkillsGapp, which aims to connect workforce opportunities with emerging talent; and Vertical Roots, the country’s largest hydroponic container whose technology is changing how communities grow food.

You’ll also hear from James Chappell, CEO of SCBIO, Sam Konduros, CEO of Southeast Life Sciences and Susie Shannon, president and CEO of the SC Council on Competitiveness.

Skillsgapp’s Rad Lab mobile workforce development game is featured on pages 20-23.

https://issuu.com/scbiz/docs/scbiz_june_/22

Innovating Workforce Development

When Apple’s “Think Different” campaign launched in 1997, the company had no new product to announce, no promotions to offer, only hemorrhaging sales. It featured images of time-honored visionaries like Einstein, Edison and Ghandi, referred to as the “The crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels.” They were the ones to shirk the status quo and move the human race forward. The folks crazy enough to think they could change the world … and did.

The subtext here is that innovation is risky, radical, and also essential. Without it we’d have no lights to turn on, cars to drive, antidotes that cure. Advanced manufacturing industries know this all too well, whose sole raison d’etre is to propel the human race forward, innovating not just how we do things, but how we can do them better.

Which is why it’s profoundly counterintuitive how, year after year, our industry innovators haven’t been able to successfully extend that same production and manufacturing approach to their workforce development practices in order to fill their talent pipeline. American manufacturing is still reported to suffer from 2.4 million jobs unfilled through 2028, causing a potential economic loss of $2.5 trillion, despite the fact they have innovated their operations to include AI and robotics, state-of-the-art systems to maximize the safety and wellbeing of their workforce, and the average yearly salary is $76,258.

Is this next generation simply a lost cause? No. Traditional workforce development tactics are. 

Traditional workforce development methods graphic

(Sources: Job fairs: 600 attendees, pre-pandemic; Website: Conversion under 3%.)


Digital Transformation

While it’s been said before, it’s worth repeating. We don’t have a people problem when it comes to filling our talent pipeline, we have an awareness problem. Therefore, scaling our outreach efforts requires the same kind of digital transformation manufacturers have already operationalized, having proven that converting manual and analog processes into digitized processes creates better outcomes by connecting people, places, and things.

But thinking differently is hard. It’s rebellious. It’s risky. It’s also, according to Steve Jobs, “the only way to win.”

A digitally transformed approach to workforce development = high impact. Look for ways to use the very innovation created under Steve Jobs – the smartphone. It’s where your future workforce is at all times and engages through multiple channels more than 7+ hours a day.

This digital tool provides:

  • Deeper, quantifiable analytics
  • Increased scale
  • A faster, more efficient process 
  • Reduced costs
  • A preferred engagement universe for Gen Z
  • An opportunity to un-silo efforts between industry, educators and government through connectivity

That last one is worth a pause. Henry Ford, arguably auto manufacturing’s most enduring visionary in American history famously asserted, “if everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” In an ‘every-man-for-himself’ era, this approach was considered innovative for its time; a precursor to the team culture mindset of today. And precisely why workforce development shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of economic developers, government, educators, or industry. That crevasse of a skills gap that needs to close in the next five years? That’s on all of our heads, which, when working together and sharing data and resources, will move us all forward. States and regions will be more competitive in business recruitment when they can fill industries’ pipeline; Departments of Education can prepare more kids for meaningful futures in their own backyard; and industry can continue to change the world on American soil. This kind of collaboration in workforce development is a win-win-win.


Nothing changes if nothing changes

“Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem, and a big idea turn into an innovation.”  – Dean Kamen (Inventor of the Segway and iBOT)

So while innovation may seem risky and radical, history has already shown us that it’s also essential. Author Geoffrey A. Moore coins the perilous dynamic of this a chasm – the space between innovative visionaries and the more mainstream pragmatists, who, typically (and ironically), helm workforce development initiatives for the most innovative industries in the world. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the power of the pivot that makes or breaks a business, no matter what business you’re in.

So what would Steve Jobs do to attract a new generation of manufacturing talent to save us from off-shoring doom? After selling out of a $500+ never-seen-before mobile phone/computer in January of 2007 with zero inventory, he would innovate. 

And he would win.

Share any feedback below or ways in which you are innovating workforce development.