Behind A Workforce Game Changer for Gen Z

Tina Zwolinski goes in depth on what it’s gonna take.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

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. 

What prompted you to enter the edtech arena, and further – to get involved with STEM?

I had a branding and marketing firm for 25 years that had a business-to-business division focused on economic development and workforce development for states and regions, and a business-to-consumer division focused on youth brands and youth non-profits — Millennials and then, Gen Z.

Every year on the business side of our company, the conversation was the same: “What can we do to find more people for the workforce this year?” The tactics in the industry remained unchanged for years – websites, videos, job fairs, etc. – and were not making a notable impact on meeting the workforce needs.

‘Every year on the business side of our company, the conversation was the same: “What can we do to find more people for the workforce this year?”’

Job opportunities with high-paying salaries and benefits were plentiful, but the up-and-coming workforce was not aware of these careers or the pathways into them. There were still stigmas around careers in manufacturing, technical school pathways, and even CTE programs in high school – only 3 in 10 parents would recommend their child consider a career in manufacturing. Today 75% of Gen Z reported not having been told about trade or vocational schools as an option. 53% state not having access to industry programs in school.

It was our non-profit work with youth in South Carolina’s rural region and in our inner-city that prompted us to step into the edtech arena. We saw underserved youth surrounded by high-paying jobs and free education, but they weren’t hearing about the opportunities all around them. The few who did, found navigating the systems in place nearly impossible. We took a step back to rethink the processes and were moved to innovate workforce pipeline development.

Also, during this time my son was a senior in high school and was attempting to navigate the systems in place to go to a technical college and into auto manufacturing. Even with my knowledge of the pathways system, it was nearly impossible for him to discern what was available to him.

He had entered the public school system in middle school with English as his second language, and his pathway would not be a four-year pathway. Working through this with him was the moment the decision was made to shift the direction as a company to dive into disrupting the status quo. We would create easy-to-navigate career and pathway awareness so that youth could advocate for their own future. We would go to youth where they were – on their phone – rather than trying to get them to go to websites or to watch videos where there is little to no ongoing engagement opportunities.

Youth, especially the underserved, needed to be connected to these life-changing careers and game-changing play would be our approach. Ninety-five percent of Gen Z have access to smartphones, even in rural areas, and 90 percent of them play mobile games.

Game on. Skillsgapp was launched.

Your involvement with STEM includes specific work, with a broad view that considers context in a greater workforce/society – how would you describe your approach and its importance?

Our approach with skillsgapp’s Skillionaire Games was to be able to scale career awareness and pathway access efforts to reach more youth, especially the underserved. Instead of reaching hundreds of students at job fairs or through online efforts, we could reach hundreds of thousands across a state or region and introduce them to high-paying careers in manufacturing and cybersecurity that they may never hear about otherwise. We want youth, middle- and high-school-age+, to be able to navigate and advocate for their own future—right from the palm of their hands.

‘We want youth, middle- and high-school-age+, to be able to navigate and advocate for their own future—right from the palm of their hands.’

With our knowledge of Gen Z and knowing that gaming has become their number one form of entertainment – over sports and streaming shows and music – we knew gaming was the way to engage with students about careers. Gaming, especially mobile gaming, is only growing and companies are investing and expanding into game development as noted by Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Activision Blizzard.

Gaming allows the students to see themselves in these careers – to try them on, with dynamic play that adapts to their proficiencies and interests. A unique, purposeful feature of our games is using the geo-location advantage of mobile to be able to feed the players local and regional content about jobs right around them, companies around them, and the pathways located right near them to get into these careers – from apprenticeships to technical/community colleges pathways.

Additionally, post-secondary education pathways and industry can recruit the players from the game, allowing them to reach an already interested audience to attend their program or fill positions at their company.

We believe this use of mobile technology with the ongoing workforce challenges will give states, regions, companies, and players the competitive solution to play and win with a qualified, sustainable workforce pipeline. It’s important to have digital transformation in workforce development, because currently the same tactics and tools are being used that were used 5+ years ago and they’re not working hard enough or scaling wide enough, especially in a post-covid world to move youth into these careers and close the skills gap.

Now a very broad question, I know, but one that I always enjoy hearing what people have to say about it: What is the state of education these days?

Education is in a crisis catch-up mode after COVID. Although some good has come out of COVID with advances in the use of technology for education, it’s a fact that students are behind, teachers are overloaded, and the impact on mental health is daunting, especially when there are only 10 child psychiatrists per 100,000 youth.

It’s important for the success of the education system and students for schools to work closely with industry, in and out of school, to prepare the students for the workforce ahead of them. In 2021, EY and JA Worldwide surveyed Gen Z on how they thought education could be improved…59% of Gen Z ranked more learning opportunities focused on real-life work as the top way to improve the education system.

‘59% of Gen Z ranked more learning opportunities focused on real-life work as the top way to improve the education system.’

Based on my 25 years of running a branding and marketing firm focused on workforce, economic development, youth, and education, I know there is a great opportunity for a win-win-win with industry, schools and economic development working together. Using technology in an innovative way, coupled with in- and out-of-the-classroom experiences will connect youth to high-paying careers while helping to fill the open jobs that industry needs filled to meet demands.

What is tech’s role in learning and education?

Tech fuels learning. Gaming fuels reach and recall. Technology will only play an increasingly important role in learning and education.

According to Carnegie Mellon, “Interactive activities are 6x more likely to help students learn.” With Gen Z’s attention span at only 8 seconds, technology combined with gamification will provide tremendous opportunities to teachers and students in and out of school, especially when it comes to preparing students for the workforce.

Barbara Humpton, President and CEO of Siemens Corporation says, “Encourage your kids to play video games!” She sees the technology being a perfect transition into the careers of today and tomorrow. Elon Musk says that education should be ‘as interesting and exciting as possible’. “They’re [games] incredibly engaging and they made me want to learn how to program computers.” Rethinking education in terms of video games could keep students engaged.

A focus on the right kind of technology and tools will be important. A recent analysis of K-12 school districts found that, on average, 67 percent of educational software product licenses go unused. In some districts, up to 90 percent of purchased software licenses are not being used. There are challenges with teaching workload and bandwidth during the day, including a lack of time for training on technology.

‘A focus on the right kind of technology and tools will be important.’

We at skillsgapp believe that there needs to be more exploration with mobile phones, as they can be used in and out of school. Students already spend 7+hours a day on their phone, not including school work screen time. If they are going to be on their phone in and out of school, why not provide something engaging and life-changing for them to do during that time?

What are some highlights of your program that have advanced learning for students, what are some specifics here?

Our mobile games provide career awareness and pathways access for those that play our games. As they play the games, they experience the different types of environments within industries, they learn job descriptions, salaries, about the companies right around them, available apprenticeships or internships, technical and community college offerings, 4-year options—all based on their geo-location.

We also have out-of–game experiences that connect youth to those careers outside of the game. With our life science game in South Carolina, Rad Lab, middle school art students were able to participate in creating the launch poster. They were able to see how marketing also plays a role in the life science industry, and that there are jobs available in those roles, too.

We conducted a player survey on our cybersecurity game deployed in San Bernardino County, CA. The players had an 89 percent recall on jobs, salaries, local post-secondary programs and even called out that they learned how to make a safe password.

Our game models include the following industries: life science, automotive, aerospace, cybersecurity, advanced manufacturing, STEM, skilled trades, agriculture, and soft skills.

Any message for leaders in education and technology across the US and beyond, in terms of focus, importances, anything else?

In a post-COVID world, it is important to shift the focus to how we can better prepare students for success in the future workforce, in whatever pathway is right for that specific student. Think of ways that can scale the in-school efforts and allow students to navigate and explore more on their own time.

‘In a post-COVID world, it is important to shift the focus to how we can better prepare students for success in the future workforce, in whatever pathway is right for that specific student.’

It’s important for education and technology leaders to work together to meet those needs for access for the students, but also to bring industry to the table for guiding what is needed now and five years from now. Industry can financially support efforts in education and technology to meet the needs they have in their workforce. This is a global need. And not a siloed one.

Your thoughts on the future of learning?

I believe the future of education will be increasingly customized to the individual learner, versus a one-for-all approach. We are already seeing this happening in post-secondary education.

We also see individual customization in e-commerce. Our mobile phones provide us all with our own unique experiences, even travel planning. Education adapts a little slower, but it is already showing the signs of heading this way. The ”have-it-your-way” approach to learning within education through technology is already on the horizon as the metaverse will bring in more experiential learning, forever changing the classroom experience.

It will be exciting to see what those 8 seconds of attention span will grasp as a more engaging learning experience enters the classroom and continues home with them on their mobile phones.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]

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