It’s easy to take the ubiquity of mobile for granted. Yet, there are still areas where it hasn’t fully saturated the scene. That’s been one of the chief takeaways from James Dunbar and Patrick Cushing, founders of website and app WorkHands.
Launched in September 2013, WorkHands aims to serve as a resource for those in skilled trades (like welding, carpentry, or manufacturing) — both employees looking for jobs and employers trying to fill jobs. Skilled workers can manage their professional online identities by creating profiles and posting pictures of work they’ve done, licenses and certifications they hold, as well as professional and educational experience.
“What we do is give that demographic a place where they can come online and put their reputation for people to find,” Dunbar said.
He said in talking with people in skilled trades, they quickly learned that the job hunt can include a lot of word of mouth, and even looking at printed lists of jobs. Online, the tools that do exist, like Craigslist, are broad and not specifically built for workers or employers in skilled trades.
Dunbar said that there are three reasons why this is a good time for a service like WorkHands. For one, there’s the domination of mobile. “You’re dealing with a demographic that maybe doesn’t have the latest most up-to-date computer in their home, and they certainly don’t sit in front of a computer at work all day. But, the vast majority of these guys have a smartphone in their pocket and are accessing the internet that way,” he said.
The second is the trade skills gap. he said that even if employers are looking to hire people in areas like carpentry or computer manufacturing, they’re not finding qualified candidates.
Third, the Baby Boomers are retiring. “There’s a lot of institutional knowledge walking off the job site, and as companies are looking to hire, they’re having a tough time connecting to and pulling in that next generation of skilled worker,” Dunbar said.
The next generation of skilled worker happens to also be a particularly mobile-savvy generation, and Dunbar and Cushing are trying to get them on board with WorkHands.
So far they’ve traveled around California talking to students and faculty at trade schools and community colleges like Laney College in Oakland, California. They’re also getting their app onto the phones of apprentices in Northern California.
Jon Fowkes is the senior senior apprenticeship coordinator for the Automotive Repair and Machinists Trades. He works with about 100 apprentices at a time who are working toward journeyman status, and his apprentices all use WorkHands.
“We used to be very antiquated,” he said. At one point, apprentices had to keep a physical log of sorts with the hours they’d spent working on specific processes like engines, brakes, or fuel lines. They’d have to get it signed by a supervisor and turn it in to Fowkes.
At one point, Fowkes updated the book to a paper time card, but now with WorkHands, the apprentices track their progress in app, and can see not only the processes they’re working on, but the one they should be working on. Plus, the app also allows for submitting times for approval from the supervisor.
“Every time I showed an apprentice what [WorkHands] was, this big broad smile came on their face,” Fowkes said. He now has much less of a problem getting apprentices to turn in their times.
Fowkes also said WorkHands will help keep track of people once they’ve moved on, since many of the apprentices are also community college students. There’s been no way for the community colleges to know what happens to students, which makes for a difficult situation when the state of California is wanting to them to track job placement success.
Since Fowkes sits on advisory committees with community colleges in the Bay Area, he’s helping push them to incorporate WorkHands into the curriculum for the technical students. When California wants numbers, they can turn to WorkHands.
One (recently graduated) community college student is Natan Jacobson. Cushing and Dunbar had come to Laney College to talk, and Jacobson signed up for the app, in part so he could have a place to show off his work, and all in one place.
“If I ever did something at work, I could take a picture if it an upload it, he said. For example, he posted pictures of an angle plate he made.
Jacobson also said he finds job postings that he doesn’t find in other places. What’s more, he was approached by a company that offered him an internship. He’s now planning on starting a four-year degree at the University of California Davis in mechanical engineering.
For someone a little further in their career, there’s Joshua Sroka, a welder based in northern Illinois.
“I love what I do, I have a passion for what I do, and there are a lot of other trades that correlate,” he said. “Going on WorkHands, I’m able to look at things other people do and admire their work. It gives me new ideas toward something I can do.”
For Dunbar and Cushing, WorkHands isn’t just a platform targeted at a gap in the market- it’s a tool that could benefit their families and friends.
“We see these guys like our brothers, our friends, these guys that are working with us and there’s not a great technological solution out there for them in terms of how they progress through their career and ways to manage their identity online,” Dunbar said.
When workers in skilled trades are less likely have digital amenities like corporate email addresses, company calendars, work computers, or really much more beyond the ability to text or call a jobsite supervisor, Dunbar sees the potential for new evolution in the field. That’s what WorkHands wants to serve.
Dunbar said, “It really creates an opportunity to say, ‘Alright, what does the world look like where the entire skilled trade workforce of 20 million blue collar workers in this country are connected in a way that they haven’t been?'”