ThomasNet, publisher of IMT Career Journal, on April 1 launched the ThomasNet North American Manufacturing Scholarship program to actively help the manufacturing sector close the STEM skills gap, providing up to 30 scholarships of $1,000 each to high-achieving students pursue their dreams in engineering, skilled trades, and supply chain management/business operations. Students have until July 1 to apply.
In conjunction with the new scholarship from ThomasNet, IMT Career Journal’s Leadership Q&A Series speaks with leaders in both academia and industry about pertinent issues affecting STEM education and workforce development. Here, we sought Patrick Cushing, the founder of WorkHands, a new resource that works to connect the skilled trades online by being the “No. 1 ally in Silicon Valley for the trades.”
Cushing, who holds a B.S. in biomedical engineering from Columbia University, and his WorkHands colleagues are helping trades workers take their reputations online to extend their job search beyond word-of-mouth, and creating a place where companies can extend their recruiting in a simpler way.
IMT Career Journal: In recent years, traditional blue-collar jobs have fallen somewhat out of fashion, due in part to the public perception of manual labor, despite the importance of trades work and workers to the economy. Does manual labor face a branding problem in the U.S.?
Cushing: We’ve been conditioned to think that these are “lower” jobs, they’ve already been outsourced, and a four-year degree is the only route to success. Compounding this, many technical education programs in the U.S. have seen their funding disappear as our education system prioritizes four-year non-trade programs.
The reality of these jobs is quite different from perception. Most importantly, workers in these industries have a ton of pride in their work, and rightly so. At the end of the day, rather than pushing papers or digital bits, workers can point to the building they’ve helped erect or part they’ve manufactured. This type of tangible output simply can’t be replicated in other industries.
Many of these jobs can never be outsourced because of how locally dependent they are. They require serious training both in the classroom and on-the-job, often requiring sophisticated computer or analysis skills. On top of that, demand has never been higher for many of these jobs, given our country’s current skilled trades gap.
IMT Career Journal: What steps can be taken to elevate manual labor’s image?
Cushing: These industries can start by simply being more visible. If the trades aren’t online, how will they reach a generation that’s grown up connected to its computers and smartphones since birth?
We forget how essential the trades are in this country, but these workers make our goods, they build our houses, fix our plumbing, lay the cable that delivers our Internet, fix our cars, and so much more. Wouldn’t it be great if this country’s workers had a way to show these contributions that keep this country running?
Cushing: WorkHands is built to serve the needs of the next generation of workers in the trades by providing tools like the ones they already know how to use – Facebook, etc. – and applying them to their careers. We’ve created an online résumé, designed exclusively for these industries’ needs, that highlights images of your work, verified certifications, tools and machinery you operate, and more.
Twenty years ago, workers in every industry followed a word-of-mouth approach to job searches, but that changed for most industries with the advent of the web. The same can, and should, happen for the trades such that 20 years from now, skilled workers have the same reach as anyone else for job opportunities beyond their word-of-mouth network.
We think this is good for workers, companies, and for our economy. Just imagine how much faster these industries could recover from an economic recession if the people needed to do the job were available at the click of a button.
IMT Career Journal: Do you see trade or vocational schools becoming more integral to both educating/training a world-class labor force and bridging the nation’s skills gap?
Cushing: Trade and vocational schools are already integral to educating skilled workers in this country. They’re the pipeline to these industries, and both small shops and international industrial conglomerates go directly to these schools for their recruiting needs. Where else are you going to find machinists to create the precision parts you need for the next-generation airplane?
I think there’s a myth that anyone who can swing a hammer can get one of these jobs, but it’s simply not true. These jobs require years of in-classroom and in-the-field work to train both your head and your hands.
At WorkHands, we’re starting almost entirely with trade schools, for a variety of reasons. They’re training the next generation of skilled workers in this country, and their students already know how to use the type of Web and mobile services we’re building for them – they’ve just never been applied this way. Instructors at these schools have few resources to connect their students to job opportunities and are often caught in the middle of a haphazard process. We’re working with them to change that.
IMT Career Journal: Based on your experience with WorkHands, what do the top challenges/concerns appear to be among skilled-trades professionals?
Cushing: The biggest challenge for the trades isn’t all that different than other industries – change. These aren’t stagnant industries by any means. Today’s mechanics and machinists work with computer technologies in a way that simply didn’t exist for their predecessors.
Workers are constantly adapting to new standards, new training needs, and new technologies. Companies are adapting to not having the same steady supply of workers in their area.
Much like a worker in a white-collar industry, workers in the trades need to be well connected, able to do multiple jobs, and able to adapt to changes in their industry.
That’s what we’re all about. We’ll work to grow WorkHands to accommodate the informational needs of workers in the trades, and hopefully, be the best tech staff these industries have ever had.
Read additional IMT Career Journal Leadership Q&A Series interviews: