Can a “MasterClass for Trades” Solve the Skills Gap?

We’ve all seen the ads for MasterClass. Learn the art of making moves from Ron Howard. Let Robert DeNiro teach you how to act. The product is ripe for parody and critics say many classes are mere collections of platitudes. But it’s also valued at $2.5 billion.

So here’s the high-concept pitch. It’s just like MasterClass. But this time there are no famous people teaching you the impossible, like how to be talented like them. Instead, we bring in unfamous people to teach you something you actually can do. And you can get paid well for doing it. Like building a perfect set of kitchen cabinets.

That thing now exists. And it’s called Copeland. And not surprisingly, its chair and founding investor is Michael Dearing, who among many other things was an initial investor in MasterClass. CEO Gabe Jewell is a former Supervising Creative Producer at MasterClass.

According to TechCrunch, the Bay Area company just raised $5 million in seed funding from and Collaborative Fund. The round brings its total funding to date to $7 million.

As suggested, Copeland is following a similar model to MasterClass. It offers video-based instruction in the foundations of the building trades. Practical lessons with professional production values. Here are some examples.

The company currently charges $75 per class. Plus it has corporate pricing for organizations that want to make the training videos available to employees. In the TechCrunch article, Jewell says the company may also consider subscription pricing once the company’s archive has grown.

Lucrative and Rewarding

Here is how the company describes its mission.

Our mission is simple: Prepare you for a lucrative and rewarding trades career, make you more valuable to employers, and move you towards the freedom of operating a construction business of your own. We do that through high-quality online courses that value your time and effort. Simply put, we’re here to help you learn the trades.

Copeland is addressing a real problem. There is a critical shortage of younger people choosing the skilled trades as a career path. Anyone who wants to install new kitchen cabinets or remodel their bathroom can attest to this. And the challenge will become more acute as older tradespeople retire, often with no one to carry on their craft.

In April, the U.S. Department of Labor’s “beige book” made special note of acute shortages in specialty trades. The current disruptions in the labor markets are highlighting the problem. But the challenge is long-term and transcends business cycles.

Dirty Jobs, Real Money

There are some well-known voices out there making the case that opportunities abound for those willing to roll up their sleeves and learn a trade. And they will be not just be rewarded with a job, but also with a career that may prove to be more lucrative than many so-called white-collar jobs.

A leading evangelist for this cause is Mike Rowe, the “Dirty Jobs” guy. He will stand before any available microphone to make this case. And he’s doing so since the Obama Administration. This 2018 interview with CNBC is just one example.

He even created the Mike Rowe Works Foundation in 2008 to give out skills training scholarships. Here is what Rowe says on the foundation’s website.

Over the last 30 years, America has convinced itself that the best path for the most people is an expensive, four-year degree. Pop culture has glorified the “corner office job” while unintentionally belittling the jobs that helped build the corner office. As a result, our society has devalued any other path to success and happiness.

Community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeship programs are labeled as ‘alternative.’ Millions of well-intended parents and guidance counselors see apprenticeships and on-the-job training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for the brass ring: a four-year degree. The push for higher education has coincided with the removal of vocational arts from high schools nationwide. And the effects of this one-two punch have laid the foundation for a widening skills gap and massive student loan debt.

Poisoned by Politics

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Rowe’s position is polarizing. Many see the debate between “make college available to everyone” and “bring back shop class” in Red vs. Blue terms. This reduction to a binary partisan debate is unfortunate and, as with most such debates, unhelpful.

So a few things do seem to be objectively true. One is that there is a skilled labor shortage. The data and our own eyes tell us this. Another is that there is a stigma against career paths that do not require a four-year degree. Even more so if they are so-called “dirty jobs.” Another is that it is possible to make a good living if you are willing to learn a skill.

Localogy 20/20: Reimagining the ‘In Home Services’ Experience

Rebranding the Trades

Closer to home, we had a similar conversation with HomeAdvisor President Craig Smith at last year’s Localogy 2020 virtual conference.

Speaking on “Reimagining the ‘In-Home Services’ Experience”, Craig made the case for more young people to consider the trades as a career path. And that introducing digital technology into the tradesperson’s workflow might help offset some of the PR challenges the skilled trades face. Here is what we wrote last September.

Craig said this shift to new technologies to augment (but never replace) home services has another benefit. COVID has exposed a looming issue in the home services space. Trade pros are aging. And young people are not replacing them in sufficient numbers. And the social stigma attached to working with your hands is a big reason. It’s a trend that has Craig scratching his head, since many tradespeople are very successful entrepreneurs.

He thinks AR and other exciting new technologies might be a part of solving this issue.

First, AR can serve as a training tool where a high skill tradesperson guides a lower-skilled worker through a job. This can draw lower-skilled workers into the ground floor. And it can help to scale experienced trade pros across more jobs than if they were there in person. Plus, skilled pros tend to be older. Using AR also protects their health.

And using these technologies might also make the trades cool again. Or as Craig puts it, the “branding” of the trades as a career choice for young people.

“They can say, ‘I am not going to be a plumber. I am using AR. I am in technology,’” Craig said. “It is an exciting time from that perspective.”

Making Cabinet Making Cool Again

So Craig’s idea to use emerging technology to de-stigmatize the trades was interesting and insightful. And while looking over Copeland’s website, I picked up a similar, subtle signal.

It’s not so much that the trades involve using cool tech like AR. It’s more of an implication that learning a skilled trade is kinda cool. Like learning how to brew IPAs or make organic cheese. And Copeland also stresses the entrepreneurial opportunities available to skilled tradespeople. That’s something Craig Smith stressed as well. What’s hard to tell is whether this vibe is by design or just a reflection of the sensibilities of the people behind Copeland. I suspect it’s a combination. Let’s see how it works.

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