Blue-Collar Blahs: There’s a Startup for That
The election of 2016 cast into plain sight the economic plight of millions of voters left behind by the digital revolution, automation and globalization. For elites, the bracing results of Donald Trump’s victory prompted a newfound interest among politicians and policymakers in alleviating the struggles of working-class Americans.
Not surprisingly, some tech entrepreneurs had beaten them to it. Apps like Uber and Airbnb were already ushering in the era of on-demand, freelance jobs for many Americans. Now, a new breed of startups is determined to improve the lives of those who have had the least to gain in the shift from manufacturing and manual labor to a technology and information-based economy: blue-collar workers.
“Everyone is building these fancy apps that help people find skilled work, and that's great, but I don't think they're solving the real problems that exist,” Joe Nigro, founder and CEO of Work Today, said in an interview. “What we are building is essentially the gig economy for the people that actually need the gig economy.”
Nigro's mission is to challenge the conventional labor platforms that control so much of today's blue-collar workforce – an arrangement he sees as unfair to workers and open to disruption. Many employment services still require workers to visit physical brick-and-mortar stores – a costly and time-consuming endeavor for workers. Then, they charge a hefty cut for their services from both the business and the employee.
Nigro, the former vice president of growth for HomeHero and general manager for Handy, decided in 2016 to build his own alternative. To begin, he spent two months canvassing the parking lots of employment services and home improvement stores in Southern California, where he handed out business cards in English and Spanish with a Google voice number. He wanted firsthand knowledge of how today's blue-collar workers live and work.
“I got hundreds of people texting me and asking me for work and telling me about their lives,” Nigro recounted. “Then I realized there was a big opportunity and people need help. I truly understood the problems workers were experiencing.”
For example, instead of building a state-of-the-art app, he created a text message-based system. Thanks to his many parking lot conversations, Nigro discovered that most blue-collar workers do not have the latest smartphones capable of using advanced apps and they are generally more comfortable using text messaging.
At WorkToday.com, applicants simply enter their name, phone number, ZIP Code and a few skills. Then, through a sophisticated algorithm, Work Today presents workers with job opportunities that would best fit their needs based on skills and location.
When the worker decides which job to pursue, the Work Today platform sends a text message with the contact information of the business and connects the two parties.
Sheldon Beeman, a construction worker based in Mission Viejo, California, relied on a traditional job service until he discovered Work Today. He said in a phone interview that he switched because he appreciates the simplicity and flexibility of Work Today.
Work Today is operational in Southern California, already has over 50,000 workers using its service and has made over 200,000 job connections. However, it is more than a business for Nigro; he sees himself as fulfilling an important need for workers who have largely been left behind by the technology revolution. “I really want to democratize work,” he said.
Another startup hopes to connect blue-collar employees with a different opportunity: a way to continue their education and improve their long-term career prospects.
Rachel Carlson and Brittany Stich founded Guild Education at Stanford University in 2015 with the intention of helping employers provide education benefits to workers who may have dropped out of college or never had a chance to pursue a degree in the first place. To underscore its mission, the company left Silicon Valley – and its high concentration of college graduates and exorbitant cost of living – and relocated to Denver, closer to the type of companies and workers it aims to serve.
Guild provides employees with flexible online courses accredited by reputable colleges and universities and also assists students, spurring them toward course or credential completion. It has already signed on with Chipotle Mexican Grill, the Hospital Corporation of America, DaVita and several other large employers. Chipotle, in partnership with Guild, now offers its employees the chance to earn a business degree in only 18 months and without having to take time off of work.
“We’re creating education programs for the 64 million working adults in the U.S. who haven't earned a college degree, by partnering with employers who have a unique opportunity to help their employees advance in their education – while also advancing on the job," Carlson, now the CEO of Guild, said in an email. "That includes bridging the gap between work and classroom experience, with programs that help offer college credit for on-the-job-training and retention coaching that helps employees succeed in school and work."
More than 30 million working adults have attempted to go back to school but dropped out, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Often, the demands of work and school become too much to juggle. Guild seeks to serve these workers – custodians, food service employees, building security employees, and the like – many of whom have not experienced the benefits of the digital revolution that many middle- and upper-class Americans have enjoyed.
Christopher Beach is the editor of RealClearEducation.