You have to see it to be it, the saying goes. Students have to know a job exists before they can ever become interested in it.
The Indiana Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs is embracing a modern twist on the philosophy by rolling out a virtual reality career exploration program to sites across the state. It’s an education tool that feels like a game to the kids who use it, Executive Director Lana Taylor says, and it has helped clubs reconnect with teens who fell off their radar during the first couple years of the coronavirus pandemic.
With programming from the VR workforce-training company Transfr, Boys & Girls Club students can don a VR headset and try their hand at putting up power lines or landing a plane. Simulations for hospitality and health careers are popular, as well, Taylor adds.
“When I was a kid it was, ‘I wanna be a fireman, I wanna be a nurse, I wanna be a police officer.’ Nowadays it’s, ‘I wanna be a social influencer,’” Taylor says. “Learning what their interests are and how we can adapt to those has been pretty key.”
Tom Darling, Transfr’s director of strategic initiatives, has worked in workforce development for 20 years, from the K-12 level through community college and beyond. He says he has learned during those two decades that few students know what they want to do when they’re exposed to traditional career-exploration programs starting in seventh or eighth grade, so the goal of the VR simulations is to help students find a path that interests them.
Darling adds that the tech is a pull for students who have experience with VR or AR video games like Pokemon Go.
“I’m not trying to date myself, but I started in workforce development before the iPhone came out,” he says. “Now you have digital natives that have very short attention spans, and you’ve gotta get them engaged real quick. So the more immersive the technology, the better.”
What started with a pilot with 10 clubs during the summer of 2022 expanded to another 21 during the fall, Taylor says, and there are plans for a third round to get VR sets into more Indiana sites.
The VR career simulations are part of the work of the Indiana Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs to support students dealing not only with academic “learning loss,” but also with the mental health and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a little disheartening seeing how far behind the kids are when they start, but it’s also really rewarding when you do see that they are making gains,” Taylor says of students joining or rejoining clubs. “What we’re finding is that education, college [preparation], volunteerism, arts—everything that the kids are doing at a club—has really a long-term impact on them, and really helps them develop and grow.”