This Startup Wants To Help You Overcome Your Skills Gap Before You Get Your First Job

Retailers like Staples, Old Navy, and AT&T are working with a new platform called LearnUp to train sales associate candidates before they even get the job.

This Startup Wants To Help You Overcome Your Skills Gap Before You Get Your First Job
[Illustration: Nuk2013 via Shutterstock]

These days, getting a job is nearly effortless if you’re part of a certain class of job-seeker: college-educated, working in engineering or programming, and looking for work in the booming tech sector. But while demand for highly educated employees is growing in some markets, the reality is that 73% of jobs in the U.S. don’t require a college degree–and the people applying for those jobs often have skills that are out of sync with what employers are looking for.


Alexis Ringwald, an entrepreneur who previously started and sold the software startup Valence Energy, has spent a lot of time thinking about this skills gap. In 2011, she took six months to walk the unemployment lines, trying to figure out the pain points in the job-seeking process. “I found that employers were struggling to fill entry-level positions,” she says. The problem is that companies often have specific skills requirements for these positions–like helping customers in a gadget-focused retail store upgrade to the latest technology–that potential employees lack.

Oftentimes, job applicants don’t even realize their current skills are out of date. And when employers fail to respond to their job applications, they have no idea why.

In 2012, Ringwald and co-founder Kenny Ma started LearnUp, a job-training platform for positions that don’t require a college degree. Each skills training module on the site is created for a specific job opening with the companies that post positions on the LearnUp platform, including Staples, Gap, Inc, AT&T, and Office Depot. Once applicants finish the training and fill out the requisite application paperwork, LearnUp sets up a job interview (though one is never guaranteed). LearnUp piloted its model in the San Francisco Bay Area, but today it posts positions available across the country.

After two years of operation, LearnUp has found that doing one to two hours of training on its platform triples the chances that an applicant will be hired.

When LearnUp first launched, Ringwald thought that the startup could just pull training materials for entry-level jobs off the Internet and collect them on the site. It turns out those training materials don’t really exist, so LearnUp created its own, developed in partnership with employers who pay to be a part of the platform. Every single job on LearnUp has a unique training program–there is no one-size-fits all training for, say, a sales associates.

I went through a training for the Staples technical sales associate job, and encountered scenarios like this:


And this:

“Having a series of realistic situations is the most effective way to teach job skills,” says Ringwald.

Marley Barazon, a high school student in San Francisco, successfully used the platform to secure a part-time job as a sales associate at Old Navy. It was the only job she applied for through LearnUp. “I watched the videos, and the next week I already had the interview,” she says.

Barazon and her family moved to San Francisco from the Philippines just four months ago. Now 17, the high schooler began applying for jobs in the city when she was 16–and consistently lost out to 18-year-olds. She believes that LearnUp gave her the chance to prove her employability in a new country, and to have a fighting chance against older applicants.

While LearnUp gives applicants a real chance to be employed, not everybody makes it through the application process with a job. Barazon’s twin brother completed LearnUp’s modules and got an interview with Old Navy, but wasn’t ultimately hired.

For now, LearnUp is focused on entry-level positions in retail, but Ringwald has larger ambitions of moving into other sectors, and beyond entry-level work. “The average person has 15 to 16 jobs in their lifetime. You need something that keeps your skills relevant,” she says. “Our vision is to have training available for every job.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.