Cynthia Jenkins and Tina Zwolinski of skillsgapp — Merging Gaming with Career Education, Tackling the Skills Gap, and Innovating for Future Generations – AI Time Journal

In this interview with Cynthia Jenkins, CMO, and Tina Zwolinski, CEO of skillsgapp, we delve into the innovative heart of an organization that stands at the crossroads of gaming and career education. Their pioneering vision has birthed a platform that leverages the universal appeal of mobile games to bridge the gap between young talent and in-demand careers in sectors like advanced manufacturing, healthcare, and cybersecurity. We’ll explore the journey that led to the creation of skillsgapp, the impact of their work on youth career awareness, and their aspirations for the future of workforce development.

Join us as we uncover the story behind skillsgapp, its mission to equip the next generation with the skills and knowledge for future success, and how they’re transforming the landscape of career readiness through the power of play.

Could you walk us through the genesis of skillsgapp and what inspired you to merge gaming with career education, particularly in industries like advanced manufacturing, healthcare and Cybersecurity?

Tina: It was my adopted son who influenced the decision to launch a ‘career gaming’ company. English is his second language and school didn’t come easy for him. His post-secondary path should have been a natural foray directly into auto manufacturing, his passion, yet we both struggled navigating a local career track. I ran a marketing agency for over 20 years that specialized in youth brands and workforce development. I knew big companies, including auto manufacturing, were struggling to fill their skilled talent pipelines, despite offering a starting salary of 50K+ without a college degree.

This is a prevailing issue across a multitude of industries looking for entry- to mid-level talent, but it isn’t a people problem; it’s an awareness one. Sadly, almost half of our high school graduates will end up in low wage jobs unnecessarily if we don’t innovate the career awareness space. Traditional methods like job fairs and websites simply aren’t moving the needle fast enough. The virtual landscape perpetuated by the pandemic is what led to the ‘aha’ moment to merge mobile gaming and career awareness. 97% of our next workforce generation has a mobile device, and 96% game. “Career gaming” meets this next generation where they are and can engage and scale in a way nothing else can – or has.

How do you see AI and machine learning technologies enhancing the educational value of mobile games, especially in adapting to the proficiency levels and interests of players?

Cynthia: Personalized UX through generative AI has already demonstrated increased engagement and stickiness in a lot of media. What hasn’t been explored is the impact AI can have on a personalized career trajectory within gaming. Adapting gameplay and content to a player’s behavior, skill level and location is poised to be a real needle-mover within the career awareness space, because each player can essentially try careers on in a simulated, private environment. Those that resonate will nurture marketable skill development, prompt local pathways and salaries and even mentorship via digital twins they would otherwise never be exposed to in a one-size-fits-all experience.

In your journey of marketing and creative development for dream brands across diverse sectors, how have your experiences shaped your approach to marketing educational games and engaging Gen Z in career exploration?

Cynthia: the Japanese concept of ikigai, the discovery of what truly matters to a person to live a life filled with purpose and joy, is what shapes our approach to engaging youth in career exploration. That self discovery and the belief they can succeed in something that aligns with their passions can move a player from a lofty aspiration to a tangible action in our games. Do you love ‘X,Y, Z’ make-up brand? Play this game with chemical compounds and you could work for them. How they buy brands can inform bigger, lifelong pursuits. Connecting those dots is a powerful agent.

skillsgapp aims to close the skills gap by connecting youth with in-demand jobs. How does the platform ensure that the content remains current with evolving industry needs and job market trends?

Tina: We’ve been fortunate in securing collaboration from large company partners within the industries our games support. They help inform our game content to accurately represent their most needed skills, up-to-date salaries and job requirements. Colleges also weigh in on programs that feed regional industry needs, including all levels of certifications and degrees. Closing the skills gap is priority #1 for states’ economic development organizations, too, so market trends and evolving technologies are always at our fingertips. Building a vetted, skilled-based talent pool is currently an initiative that’s on fire everywhere. Skillsgapp’s Skillionaire Games represent an un-siloed pursuit in putting it out.

You’ve emphasized the importance of addressing stigmas within Gen Z markets and industries. How does skillsgapp tackle these challenges?

Cynthia: the dirty job stigma of generations past persists within advanced manufacturing most significantly, despite its state-of-the-art technology, robots and floors you could eat off of. And the salaries and professional growth opportunities outpace those of almost any other field. In our advanced manufacturing game, Maker Mojo, we have our players interact with robots and cobots, 3-D print rocket shoes, and weld flying cars. In our healthcare game, Healing Agent, they may be a phlebotomist drawing blood for a level. In our cybersecurity game, Cyber Watchdog, players can identify email phishing schemes to take down a global hacker. Along the way, players are introduced to real employees in these fields who look like them, live right around them, and have the same lifestyle goals as they do.

Could you share insights on how skillsgapp’s “virtual apprenticeship” model in games like Skillionaire Games has impacted players’ understanding and interest in skills-based careers?

Tina: I’ll give you a pretty compelling one. Over 80% of youth playing Rad Lab, our life science career game, went from having no idea what life science was, to knowing it’s about making products for healthcare. That same percentage learned that you don’t have to be a scientist to work in life science. The impact that awareness could have on the unfilled STEM careers that don’t require a four-year degree is substantial. For context, 2.1 million jobs are projected to go unfilled in advanced manufacturing alone. Again, it’s an awareness issue, not a people one.

Given your passion for education and guiding youth to find their “hire purpose,” what success stories can you share where skillsgapp has significantly influenced a player’s career choice or educational pathway?

Tina: At our current stage, I consider awareness of careers, specifically those under-represented in schools, hugely successful. They cannot be what they do not see. Adding in the access piece – where to go and how to pursue these jobs they’ve just enjoyed in game – are even bigger wins. Our in-game assessment data has already validated marked influence on early career preferences and indicators.

The integration of geolocation technology in skillsgapp games is quite innovative. How does this feature enhance the gaming experience and its effectiveness in connecting players with local opportunities?

Cynthia: Our mantra at skillsgapp is “Everyone has a hire purpose.” As such, our games are always free-to-play, available in both English and Spanish, and offer scholarships, rewards and incentives to remove all barriers to equitable access, including unbiased recruitment (void of gender, name or race) to relevant pathways and programs right around the player. This makes the geo-specificity feature within our games key in breaking cycles of poverty, keeping families intact and communities thriving. While agnostic career awareness can be achieved without geo-location, connecting a player to content or opportunities they can actually access moves them to action. We want our players to level up their lives, no matter where they live.

With your commitment to reversing stigmas and promoting career education, how does skillsgapp incorporate soft skills training into its gaming experience, and why do you believe this is crucial for today’s workforce?

Tina: Attracting talent with the tech or hard skills needed to perform a job represents a pain point in just about any industry. But those are teachable. What’s harder are those employable skills that correlate with a person’s capacity to feel and respond as an employee, like critical thinking, collaboration and communication. These skills also have staying power. Research shows that the half-life of a learned skill is 5 years, while ‘human’ skills are evergreen. In the era of virtual technology, and even AI, this has become even more critical as teams still have to communicate across cultures and languages. This is why we’ve incorporated problem solving into each of our games, communication, collaboration and even work ethic. A player can actually earn points if they check in every day for five consecutive days.

Looking toward the future, how do you envision the evolution of skillsgapp and its contribution to the broader landscape of career readiness and workforce development?

Cynthia: Our mission at skillsgapp is to connect youth to life-changing careers through game-changing play. If we can fulfill that through awareness and access within our most vulnerable populations and industries, we can build a more sustainable workforce and promote equitable outcomes for all.

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