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In closing the skills gap, building a LinkedIn for the trades.

GUEST COLUMN | by Michael Colonnese

credit-workamericaEmployers commonly complain about the lack of skilled workers, particularly in manufacturing. But what if companies are looking in the wrong place? To solve the skills gap, we have to fix how employers search for candidates, and how vocational students search for employment.

I have seen this disconnect from all sides: working with recruiters of both local and large employers like Vulcan Materials and Covenant Transport; inside vocational colleges like TCAT Nashville with a first-hand view of how admin and career services operate; and by spending significant time meeting with students across the country to understand the community college and vocational/CTE demographic.

Here’s how it typically works: students in the trades primarily find their first job through their instructor. Instructors have on average 3-5 very close relationships with local employers that they know will hire recent graduates. Afterwards, these newly minted workers find their second, third, and fourth jobs by word of mouth from colleagues, friends, and family. This pattern is especially prevalent in the manufacturing, logistics, and allied health sectors where birds of a feather flock together.

When employers contact students while they’re still in school, it reduces the likelihood of a gap between education and employment—and helps solve our nation’s skills gap.

Now contrast this to how employers recruit. Most HR departments search for candidates online by posting jobs on Indeed, CareerBuilder, and Snagajob—or outsourcing that work to staffing firms. With the exception of a few large employers, companies don’t typically reach out to schools.

Last year, we visited a nationwide staffing firm that could not find the talent they needed. Right across the street was a highly respected community college. When we inquired about their relationship, the staffing office managers admitted to never having ventured over to reach out to students directly!

As a result, employers search online for candidates who are not typically online for the purpose of finding a job. Everyone is trying to solve this. Over the past few months, we’ve witnessed an explosion in the number of schools, state labor departments, industry associations, and credentialing agencies building their own registries and job boards.

But there is a problem with this approach. First, employers aren’t likely to search through hundreds of different websites, each with its own niche focus. That’s why they keep using the big guys like Indeed and Monster, despite diminishing returns. Second, having all these different websites and options is overwhelming and downright intimidating to students, a demographic not used to creating a professional online presence!

Over a decade ago, LinkedIn solved this very same problem for white-collar (managers, directors, VP’s C-suite) employees by creating a single site where everyone participates. However, LinkedIn is directed at a population that is used to sitting behind a desk, has laptops with wifi accessibility, and has full data plans for web surfing on smart phones.

That’s why our company created a site dedicated to the trades worker. We used our extensive experience with this demographic to understand the best way to engage them in a simple and easy to use platform, highlighting their schooling and industry credentials without the intimidation of asking for references and portfolios of work.

The platform is free for job seekers and schools. We’ve built in special features designed for CTE/WFD students, including a messaging system where recruiters send inquiries through our site that appear as a text message to candidates. We all know that emailing and logging into messaging sites isn’t the best way to reach a millennial, so why not communicate with them the way they prefer? Career services departments remain in the loop with alerts that inform them students are being engaged by employers, so that they can coordinate resume writing support and mock interviews.

Our Smart Job Feed geo-tags a job seeker’s location and their credential and only display jobs that they qualify for—aggregated from across the internet—eliminating their need to visit multiple sites. Some of our school partners have incorporated this tool into their employment readiness training.

Since our launch in 2013, we have partnered with dozens of community colleges and technical schools. And we are one of five companies in the inaugural cohort of Michelson Runway, an initiative of the Michelson 20MM Foundation. Supported by Dr. Gary Michelson, the program is the first social impact accelerator focused on innovations in higher education and workforce development.

From the beginning, our goal has been to create a national site that brings employers, job seekers, and schools together to seamlessly communicate. When employers contact students while they’re still in school, it reduces the likelihood of a gap between education and employment—and helps solve our nation’s skills gap.

Michael Colonnese is CEO and co-founder of WorkAmerica. For more information, visit or email


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