In recent years, a bleak picture has started to emerge of people in left-behind America. In communities with few jobs and a raging opioid crisis, young men in particular have retreated in great numbers, simply dropping out of life altogether, spending their days playing video games with no end in sight. Funding for local educational programs has been slashed, and the for-profit institutions that prey on them require taking out massive loans and rarely provide any sort of useful education. In the meantime, skilled manufacturing jobs sit empty and productivity decreases, because there remains a wide gap and no clear path for those who could learn the skills but cannot figure out how.
Virtual reality could provide a solution to this. It has become trendy to proclaim that the technology can solve all the ills of the world, and that overstates the case greatly. But what well-designed initial training programs can do is meet these young people where they are, allow them to work and learn on their own time, and give them the confidence and knowledge base to seek more skills. Don’t worry, teachers, the robots aren’t coming for your jobs — they are providing a funnel to send more students your way.
VR training meets young people where they are, which is oftentimes in front of a video game console. Many of them have spent hours playing first person shooting and driving games, and that skill set can easily be adapted for first-person training, especially if the VR experience is gamified in a way that makes it fun to play. Users can compete and level up to learn new skills, and employers can use that a recruiting tool to see which players take naturally to the tasks and offer them further training or education. These experiences can also teach young people about jobs they might not have known about and encourage them to pursue new fields of inquiry.
This type of training can also be self-directed and done at any hour of the day — ideal for minimum wage workers and people with young children who have variable and unpredictable schedules. Again, VR training will never fully replace real training — if you want to be a welder, at a certain point you need to get your hands on blowtorch. But the initial training can happen outside a classroom and can reduce dropout rates.
Finally, VR training can provide a confidence boost to young people who feel they have no other outlets or paths forward. While playing video games actually builds many skills, you’d be hard pressed to find a career coach who would suggest putting your Grand Theft Auto score on your resume, and so for the most part those abilities are unrecognized by employers. But by allowing them to get good at something that could lead to a stable career and income, it could help break cycles of dependency and create a way out.
None of this will be cheap, but headset prices are dropping rapidly, and are a worthwhile investment for companies looking for build a skilled manufacturing base. Providing grants to get this technology in the hands of underserved young people is a great first step to helping them gain needed skills and create overall comfort with VR. Immersive tech might not save the world, but it can certainly help impoverished people gain job skills and make better lives for themselves.