The good news about manufacturing amid Covid is that the pandemic did little to shut U.S. factories down once they got their health and safety protocols in place. The bad news is that, nearly a year after the coronavirus brought the economy to its knees, the resurgent manufacturing sector needs skilled workers more than ever. This is especially the case with the tradespeople who keep American factories running.
But all of this has been good news for Interplay Learning, an Austin-based company that provides digital training in skilled trades. The need for training worthy potential tradespeople is bigger than ever, and the remote-work imperative of Covid has created a boom in manufacturers and service companies purchasing Interplay’s training services. Year-over-year sales have increased by about 300 percent.
Interplay Learning CEO Doug Donovan also has noticed a more determined attitude by many companies to finally solve a skilled-trade shortage that has plagued many of them for several years in areas including HVAC, plumbing, electrical and solar servicing, and maintenance of everything from multi-family housing units to warehouses, as well as manufacturing trades per se.
“Pre-Covid, companies just kept complaining about the skills gap,” Donovan told Chief Executive. “We heard that for five years. But in the last 12 to 18 months, you see companies acting to solve that gap for themselves. And they have recognized the need to do it digitally.”
The key to taking advantage of that demand for Interplay Learning was to recognize that “we have to approach them with tools they’re comfortable with, with what looks and feels like the life you’re already living.” That means programs that teach on laptops and cell phones. “They recognize that if they don’t go there, they’re going to struggle filling these currently empty jobs.”
Donovan said that the key demographic companies target for trades training is 18-year-old high-school graduates. “They do everything first on their cell phones, whether it’s ordering a pizza or answering” a question about a point of information, he said. “So if you’re not starting with them digitally, they don’t know how to react. You have to start with digital, whatever it is you’re teaching.”
Also, the crucial cutting edge in skilled-trades training is virtual reality and augmented reality. Interplay Learning is introducing programs that use VR and AR devices to create unprecedented realism about the tasks, challenges and techniques involved in trades training. “They can have a VR or AR experience that might actually seem like working on a cooling tower on a roof, for instance,” Donovan said.
One emerging edge for companies seeking new recruits in the wake of Covid is that the severe cutbacks experienced at least temporarily by many service industries have untethered many “gig economy” workers who now are motivated to seek permanent, more secure employment.
“Uber drivers and others have suffered most during Covid,” Donovan said. “Manufacturers, HVAC services and electricians’ unions can offer a career, and their hourly wages are higher than the gig stuff these people were doing. Plus, the chance to work with their hands and not behind a desk speaks to them, not being knowledge workers. They recognize that the flexibility that comes with gig assignments cuts both ways. They’re interested in what a career looks like.
“The term ‘essential workers’ didn’t exist prior to Covid. But now people appreciate how important these careers are.”