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.

A recent BBC article asserted that soft skills honed via gaming, including teamwork, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and strategic planning, are quite applicable to real-life work situations. The article notes that one recent startup guides people into careers by analyzing their gaming profiles and offering courses designed to hone specific skills.

Another recent startup has taken the use of gaming as a pathway to workplace success a couple of steps further. Skillsgapp founding partner and CEO Tina Zwolinski had spent two decades building a national branding firm, with offices in South Carolina and California that focused particularly on economic development and youth on the consumer side.

But when her adopted son, whose first language was not English, sought out a career path to work in the automobile industry, the family found it difficult to navigate the system of marketing websites, videos and programs, courses, and certifications. She realized that if her son was having a problem, there was likely a widespread need for new tools to link millions of underserved youths to productive careers in fields until recently spurned by academia.

Joined in the new venture by longtime ZWO executive Cynthia Jenkins, now skillsgapp’s chief marketing officer, the two innovators decided upon a direct approach. To help middle and high school students and those who had left formal schooling learn the technical and soft skills they would need for careers in skills-based industries, they opted to focus on creating tailored video games that youth can play and gain vital information using apps on their mobile phones.

Young people today spend nine hours a day looking at screens, seven on the hand-held phone, says Zwolinski. They go everywhere with their phone in hand, making it the easiest tool for transmitting information of any kind. And nine in ten admit to being gamers at one level or another. Moreover, while a job fair may attract a few hundred during a limited time frame, the mobile app is available 24/7/365, whenever players find the time.

Zwolinski and Jenkins hired game developers who had taught at the local college level and whose passion was connecting students to real-world situations. They also made all the games free to play so as not to discourage even the poorest from investigating pay scales, job skills, and other pertinent information they would need to succeed. The mobile, interactive apps provide middle and high school students in any region, particularly underserved areas, with career awareness and access to localized career pathways to match their proficiencies and interests.

Skillsgapp’s plan includes working with public and private employers in need of qualified workers, those willing to enter into apprenticeships, gain certifications, and earn sizable paychecks without incurring tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. To maximize the immediate impact of these training games, skillsgapp decided to adapt each of its “Skillionaire” games to specific locations and thus highlight jobs and educational pathways most likely available nearby gamers’ homes.

Skillsgapp seeks support for its gaming apps from states, economic development organizations, industries, and public sector agencies dedicated to building a qualified workforce pipeline. The primary focus became careers with open jobs that most students had not considered. Two-thirds of those introduced to skillsgapp’s games indicated they had previously been unaware that manufacturing jobs provided good wages and benefits.

The skillsgapp team has developed Skillionaire Games tailored toward making gamers aware and able to connect with jobs in nine categories -- cybersecurity, aerospace, automotive, life sciences, skilled trades (e.g., electricians), advanced manufacturing, STEM, and agriculture and also with jobs requiring proficiency in soft skills.

Each game can be loaded with area-specific jobs and pay scale information, to hit the segment where there are skills gaps and open jobs that can pay as much as $60,000 a year without any college debt. The base games, which are augmented with localized information, are intended to be both fun and functional.

As the youths play a game, they improve their skills and at the same time the game gets more complicated. The goal is to help the players gain more proficiencies and thus be even better prepared to enter the workforce. The games are dynamic and tied to an actionable element that drives players to broaden their skills levels.

The good news, says Zwolinski, is that as young people gain awareness of the opportunities in these professions, their interest picks up and they are eager to learn applicable skills.

Cybersecurity is said to be short, nearly half a million workers in the U.S. alone. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that “data protection specialist,” a field not requiring certification, will be a Top 10 career pathway in the 21st century. In the wake of the COVID pandemic, the need for life sciences workers is also growing rapidly. The universe of plumbers, HVAC workers, and electrical workers has been in short supply for a decade.

To meet rising demand, skillsgapp has been piloting its cybersecurity game in San Bernardino County, California’s largest geographically. In an exit survey of youths who played the cybersecurity game in San Bernardino conducted 72 hours later, the players had an 89% recall. Most admitted they had no idea they could earn a good living straight out of high school from coding, nor did they know that there is such a thing as ethical hacking. Most were enthusiastic about new-found opportunities.

Zwolinski’s work in developing customized gaming apps for skills-based career and pathway awareness “…puts skillsgapp on the cutting edge of workforce development and recruitment,” says Fred Wood, who chairs the Academic Advisory Council for the Skills Trades Alliance.

Zwolinski says that skillsgapp’s game models, which do not exist anywhere else, are already helping manufacturing industries, states and regions, and economic development agencies reach new generations of talent. It is one of the few tools capable of steering young people into the professions with the greatest workforce shortages.

Jenkins adds that the speed with which skillsgapp can implement its programs can help expedite workforce readiness that can narrow the gap between available jobs and skilled workers looking for jobs. Employers like the fact that they can recruit from those who play these games. Even public-school systems have recently begun to reemphasize the school-to-industry connection, and there is growing pressure to bring more manufacturing back home.

With a big rollout of all nine games this year, skillsgapp is also hoping that their games can narrow the skills gap that Mike Rowe says is due to a broken value system and a decline in the perceived value of hard work.

Helping people find jobs they enjoy can help restore national pride in a job well done.

Duggan Flanakin is a Director of Policy at the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). The views expressed are his own.