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Startup accelerator network Dreamit Ventures today unveiled its latest class of companies in New York City. Maybe I’ve been to too many demo days and gotten cynical, but most of the ideas were not new. I found myself wanting to shout, “How are you going to compete with (giant incumbent startup already dominating this market)?!?”

That’s not to say Houzz, or Foursquare, or Maker Studios, or the myriad of cause-related fundraising tools will always dominate, or that there isn’t room for a feisty new competitor. I’m not even saying there are many truly original ideas left in the world. But I’ve seen some version of most of these companies before.

One startup, TradeUp, stuck out to me as a fresh idea. I’ve encountered the need for it numerous times but never seen it explicitly executed. I’m not sure if TradeUp will be the one to capture this market, but they’re in a good position to. If they don’t, someone else will.

TradeUp bridges the gap between free online courses and actual jobs. The promise of online courses through Coursera, Khan Academy, and others is huge and important: Our economy is moving away from manual labor and manufacturing to knowledge-based jobs requiring specialized skills (often in the digital realm). Between 2010 and 2020, almost half of all new job openings (25 million) will be “middle skills” jobs, which require some sort of technical education. Much hand-wringing has been done over the skills gap; this is why the tech industry is so keen on immigration reform. We need to import talent to keep up with the rest of the world.

Everyone knows that the digital sector is where job growth is strongest. But job seekers, be they recent college grads or workers laid off from industries that are becoming obsolete, don’t know where to turn. Grad school is massive, expensive commitment. Slightly less expensive are full-time classes at General Assembly, and slightly less expensive than that are mentor-guided courses at Thinkful. But there is still no guarantee of a job at the end of any of those, and they don’t make it any easier to navigate the job market.

TradeUp is free and self-guided, which certainly presents its own completion rate issue, but at least it motivates its students with the promise of actual jobs. TradeUp offers no certification; founder Daniel Daks says that would be a “ruse,” when the ultimate goal is, again, to qualify people for actual job openings.

You can sign up and express an interest in a specific area like, say, digital marketing, or web development, and then take a quiz that shows what skills you already have. The quiz can include anything from basic HTML questions to complex code-writing tests. Based on that, and your desired area of interest, TradeUp will formulate a course — using existing free tools from the world’s growing repository of online resources — for you to follow, proving your efficiency in the list of skills they’ve identified are required with tests along the way.

A digital marketing analyst, for example, requires 37 skills, and TradeUp has 646 job postings available.

Once you prove proficiency in all of the required areas, TradeUp matches you with employers hungry for entry-level talent with your proven set of skills. Often the employers only need 60 percent to 80 percent efficiency. They can train the employee; they just don’t want to start from scratch with someone who might not be able to learn.

Further, hiring managers at the entry level often don’t have the domain expertise themselves, so they don’t even know what questions to ask to prove such skills. That means they rely exclusively on experience to vet new hires. Digital marketing is only around five years old; the pool of applicants with three to five years of experience isn’t that big. TradeUp offers qualified leads; a handful of companies have already signed up for trial memberships, which will eventually convert to paid subscriptions.

Currently TradeUp offers courses for Ruby on Rails developing, digital marketing analysts, web analytics, social media community managers, market research analysts, SEO specialists, graphic artists and Ruby on Rails design. The company chose these course based on demand from employers and formulated its courses based on skill requirements in the job postings. Eventually it will expand to more areas related to design, Daks says.

[Image courtesy Chris Devers]

  1. TradeUp
    The First real-time game with real goods
    Follow on AngelList

    TradeUp is developing a proprietary barter-exchange platform that incorporates characteristics of both gaming and real-time trading of actual goods and services.