Toilets remain one of humankind’s most ingenious engineering feats. But while the most advanced bidets can wash themselves (along with other parts), they can’t fix themselves—yet.
Plumbing is just one of many good-paying skilled trades that remain in high demand but which have largely been glossed over by the education technology industry, says Doug Donovan, co-founder and CEO of Interplay Learning. “There’s been a lot of great edtech serving the knowledge worker, such as tools like Pluralsight. But there’s a vacuum in the digital marketplace for skills for hands-on workers.”
His company has set out to create a digital education platform similar to Lynda.com, but focused on hands-on trades. And the effort is attracting some of the most active education investors that are venturing into skilled labor for the first time.
Based in Austin, Interplay Learning has raised $18 million in a Series B funding round co-led by Owl Ventures and S3 Ventures. Other investors in this round include Strada Education Network, The Venture Reality Fund, SJF Ventures, Sierra Ventures, Holt Ventures, Wild Basin Investments and Shelter Capital Partners. Owl Ventures’ managing director, Ian Chiu will join Interplay’s board of directors.
The company dates back to 2010, when it developed computer-based training simulations and courses for vocational programs serving the energy industry. It has since expanded its catalog and changed its name to reflect the broader range of vocational trades it now serves, which include HVAC, plumbing, electrical and facility maintenance.
All the content is developed by in-house, and courses are available as classic computer-based simulations and also virtual reality experiences that aim to give learners a more hands-on feel. These courses are available as a $300 annual subscription per seat license for enterprise customers, or for $20 per month for individual users.
Interplay says it serves more than 110,000 users across 2,000 customers, most of which are small- and medium-sized businesses that use Interplay as part of their employee onboarding and training program. The company expanded into the education market last December, and currently counts 50 community colleges and high schools with vocational programs among its customers, including New Castle County Vo-Tech School District in Delaware and Antelope Valley College in California.
The company is not profitable at the moment, but plans to use the funding to expand into other trades such as telecommunications and utilities, Donovan says. That effort will entail doubling its headcount to 120 to grow its course catalog.
Revitalizing “shop classes” has been one of the few bipartisan platforms in recent years, and President Biden has pledged to “invest in school vocational training and partnerships between high schools, community colleges, and employers.” Programs like those offered by Interplay, which are designed in consultation with industry experts, can help connect the dots, says Donovan.
“We think there are 25 million to 40 million jobs in these hands-on professions that are not being well-served by existing digital educational services,” he estimates.
That doesn’t mean Interplay doesn’t have competitors, some of whom are backed by venture capital. There is Nana Technologies, which is creating an online academy specifically for appliance repair. Others are also using VR, including TRANSFR, which recently raised $12 million to build training programs for manufacturing trades.
In a time when automation and artificial intelligence has raised questions and concerns about the future of work—more specifically, which jobs will exist, and which ones won’t—Donovan is convinced that the majority of hands-on trades won’t be going away anytime soon. Others generally agree. A McKinsey report predicts that maintenance and repair work is “not as highly susceptible to automation by 2030.”
Technology may well change the nature of trades skills and what tools are used to get the job done. But for the most part, Donovan says, they will not obviate the need for humans.
Quips the CEO, “You’re not going to see a robot climbing in your attic to fix your HVAC anytime soon.”