Spencer Zuzolo instructs a student.
Spencer Zuzolo instructs a student.

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Innovations: Digital Workforce Initiative Transforms Gulf Coast Job Prospects

May 5, 2009

As America and the world face social and economic challenges, vibrant leadership with remarkable potential is coming from the Gulf Coast.

Louisiana has some unique problems, ranking dead last in key categories such as health and education, with the nation's highest rate of high school dropouts. The state also faces a skilled labor shortage of nearly 100,000 jobs, and leads the nation in out-migration, particularly of young professionals.

I just spent a week in "the heart of Cajun country"—Lafayette, Louisiana—where I watched diverse teams of talented young people transform before my eyes through an intensive training program led by 3D Squared, a nonprofit workforce development organization. The program focused on building a digital workforce steeped in one of the twenty-first century's most marketable skills: creative collaboration.

3D Squared is the brainchild of Spencer Zuzolo, a former video game industry executive who started a summer academic and career program for young people interested in the game industry, called GameCamp!

"I was getting emails every day from young people who wanted to work in the game industry" said Zuzolo. "At first I realized that there was a great need to educate young people about realistic career paths into the game industry. A little later, I realized that young people's enthusiasm for games could revolutionize education. Finally, I realized that the technologies and creative processes that drive the game industry are already transforming whole industries. Ultimately, the global social and economic fabric will be transformed by these next generation social, learning and collaboration systems. That's when I started 3D Squared."

Zuzolo hopes his new venture can help Louisiana retain its best and brightest young people while providing them with access to globally competitive jobs. The program's inexpensive implementation could also serve as a template for similarly depressed communities from coast to coast and around the world.

The Digital Workforce Intensive was held at Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE), a beautiful 70,000 sq. ft. research facility where 3D Squared has a 25-seat lab to incubate video games and other digital media. LITE is in Lafayette, a charming community of about 125,000 that bills itself as "the most wired community in America"—the city is in the process of installing a high-capacity fiber-optic network to every home and business in town.

Forty middle school and high school students spent their entire spring break at the Digital Workforce Intensive, working 12 hours per day on games and virtual worlds where the focus was on Louisiana's core social problems of education, health care, coastal restoration, and pollution.

The students came from 16 schools across the state to attend lectures, work in group labs, and be mentored by faculty and industry participants. They built prototype virtual worlds in the Metaplace online platform, and were occasionally allowed "free play" to play video games of their choice. At the end of the intensive, the teams presented their game and virtual world concepts to industry pioneers like Dallas Snell, Billy Cain, and Paul Trowe who had flown in for the event.

Local teacher Helen Connelly sent her son Cole to participate in the program. "What the kids accomplished and learned at the 3D Squared Intensive is one of the finest examples of learning that I have ever seen in the 10 years that I have been teaching," she said. "The kids' ability to work together to create a product in such a short period of time is something that many adults might not be able to accomplish."

The student presentations were astounding. Paul Trowe, the president and CEO of Austin-based Replay Games Inc., said he was extremely impressed by the professionalism of the young presenters, who answered tough questions "perfectly" without a script.

"The skills they learned during the Digital Workforce Intensive will translate into every area of their lives," said Trowe. "It will help them in school, at work and in their personal and business relationships. Communication is the central necessity for success in life, and that's a large part of what they learned."

The Intensive was followed up with a Stakeholder's Capstone Conference that included panel discussions and a three-hour marathon keynote by education futurist James Brazell. Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Joshua Fouts and I presented on the applied value of digital workforce skills across the fields of journalism, international affairs, and economics, in an effort to demonstrate the local, national, and global implications of the initiative. We highlighted the importance of integrating creativity into the framework of science and technology education.

The 3D Squared team presented their plan for using digital technologies and creative processes to transform Louisiana's social and economic landscape—an educational pipeline from middle school up through college and on to the workforce. Critically, they connected the training of a game and digital media workforce with the projects those people need to work on to get relevant industry experience. They also presented how such skills could possibly serve as a vehicle to save their own local ecological and cultural treasures.

This approach could be revolutionary for Louisiana because the number one reason students drop out is lack of engagement with the educational system—they simply aren't interested. They are definitely interested in games, and are motivated to learn when lessons are framed in relation to games. In learning how to collaborate on the creation of games, students are being prepared for related collaborative opportunities, such as participation in the state's increasingly robust mixed media and film production industry and the creation of simulated virtual training environments.

In learning how to design games, kids are also learning the most important skills to compete across sectors in the 21st century. Creative collaboration and fluency within the digital culture are modern necessities. Most importantly, people can work within these fields from their own communities without feeling the necessity to leave and find work in cramped urban centers.

A big problem in filling skilled jobs is the lack of a distributed learning infrastructure that allows for cost-effective training across industries. The Digital Workforce Initiative is premised on building that very infrastructure while simultaneously training young people in the tools and processes of the industry.

Finally, young people leave Louisiana because there aren't realistic career paths for them once they are out of school. The premise of the Digital Workforce Initiative is that gradually growing an in-state game industry along with a trained workforce will result in a more sustainable technology industry than simply recruiting big companies through financial incentives.

The Louisiana State Legislature and the Office of Governor Bobby Jindal is in the process of discussing the future of Louisiana's digital education investment strategy. The legislature has added language to HB1, the state budget bill, to fund year two of the Digital Technologies & Creative Processes Initiative. It would support and augment the work of 3D Squared and LITE, but the funding is not guaranteed.

It is my belief that the passing of this bill is not only imperative locally to the redevelopment and preservation of Louisiana's culture and economy, which I have been intensively documenting since 2006, but it could also serve as an effective template for economic and educational transformation on a national and global scale.

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