WASHINGTON -- A growing number of startups want to play the matchmaker role between community colleges and employers. One of them, WorkAmerica, makes an unusual offer as part of their pitch: students get a legally binding job offer before they enroll at one of the company’s partner colleges.
“No student should enroll in a vocational job program without having a job guarantee,” said Collin Gutman, WorkAmerica’s CEO and co-founder. “We get jobs for people before they start a college class.”
The recently launched company  is based here. It remains solidly in startup mode. But WorkAmerica has begun placing students in trucking programs at community colleges. Gutman said more deals are in the works, and that the company plans to branch into other fields with a high churn of workers, such as employers of welders, medical assistants, and IT and HVAC technicians.
Another company using a similar approach is Workforce IO. The technology platform tries to hook up employers with trainers -- whether community colleges, nonprofit organizations like the United Way, or even individual mentors or bosses.
Workforce IO hinges on being able to vouch for the reliability  of entry-level job candidates. It does that by having created a “library of skills” in various fields and offering digital badges for those skills, said Elena Valentine, a co-founder of the company.
The 275 job-skills badges serve as a “common language” between employers and trainers, she said. “We just want to get students into jobs.”
Startups like Workforce IO and WorkAmerica are responding to a real problem, said Mary Alice McCarthy, senior policy analyst for the New America Foundation, who previously worked for both the U.S. Department of Labor and the Education Department.
Many companies are having a hard time filling positions, she said, particularly in vocational fields like trucking and welding or at call centers and in other relatively low-skilled roles. And job centers that receive funding under the federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) apparently have not been able to fully bridge the divide.
“It’s not a linkage that seems to be working,” said McCarthy.
Less clear, she said, is how much of the issue is caused by a disconnect between colleges and employers. The high turnover of workers in those fields is a problem, too. “Is it just churn?” she said.
Gutman said his company offers a win-win to both sides of the partnerships they broker.
WorkAmerica gets paid by employers, which, in several industries, are desperate for trained workers. Community colleges pay nothing and get a pipeline of students without having to spend on marketing.
The company also provides a vetting function that colleges typically don’t, said Gutman, whose previous job was at a technology-based human resources company.
Community colleges generally practice open-door admissions. That means they don’t turn away students for background issues, like having an arrest on their record for driving under the influence. While that approach may be central to a college’s mission, it’s a big issue for a trucking company that can’t hire graduates with recent DUIs on their record -- as well as for enrollees who might not realize a criminal conviction like that could be a disqualifier for a job.
This problem is hardly rare, Gutman said. Sometimes fully half of job applicants at trucking companies are ineligible because of DUIs. That exacerbates the problem of filling the industry’s need for 95,000 new hires each year, when higher education only produces 75,000 graduates.
That’s where WorkAmerica wants to step in, with the lure of removing risk from all sides.
The company screens prospective hires/students. They get a formal job offer if they meet the company’s baseline hiring requirements. The employer promises to bring on students who complete the academic program in good standing. Some of those programs may be noncredit. Others are certificate tracks. And degree programs could work, too.
“To not hire them they’d have to fire them,” Gutman said of employer's pledge with the job guarantee.
That works for employers, because they know they’re recruiting people who can do the job.
Getting the Right Skills
WorkAmerica starts by seeking out community college partners that offer compatible academic programs. And the company also works to help employers ensure that the college is embedding the right skills, or competencies, into its curriculum.
Likewise, WorkForce IO uses badges to signify that prospective workers have skills that are relevant to fields like advanced manufacturing, retail and logistics.
For example, a boss can issue a badge to an entry-level employee, said John Dillow, the company’s CEO and co-founder, which the worker can use to “validate” his skills and, hopefully, advance in the work place. Dillow compared that process to a medical residency, where a doctor gets verifiable, on-the-job training.
College instructors can also issue badges on the platform. Dillow said Workforce IO has collaborated with Grand Rapids Community College, in Michigan, as well as an Illinois campus of Everest College, a for-profit institution.
Gutman said his company is talking to five or six community colleges about partnerships. A couple have already begun using WorkAmerica’s vetting and job placement services. And Gutman said his company is in discussions with Anne Arundel Community College, which is located in Maryland, about pilot programs in several fields beyond trucking.
John A. Cavey is coordinator of the commercial vehicle transportation department at Maryland’s Hagerstown Community College. He said his department is considering a partnership with WorkAmerica for the college's eight-week trucking program. One draw would be the free student recruiting.
“Marketing budgets are always a bit limited,” said Carey, adding that he sees the potential payoff for students, too. “These people already have jobs.”