LinkedIn sheds elitest image by widening career network

Professional site wants to expand numbers beyond the throngs of accountants, lawyers and marketers

After a few years out of the workforce to care for his youngest son, Klaus Thorsen spruced up his LinkedIn profile. Not that un­usual, you may think. After all, the careers networking site has more than 330m registered users.

Except that Mr Thorsen is a north London carpenter hoping to find contacts and employment on a site where job titles such as “builder” are more typically used to describe someone who creates online communities than a construction worker.

Mr Thorsen admits he would never have joined LinkedIn if it were not for his partner, Karen Fugle, an executive coach to architects. "If you're not in the corporate world it's a big step, [it's] baffling," she says. That is not to say Mr Thorsen does not use technology; he is an enthusiastic Twitter user, deploying it to keep up with industry news and finds work through referrals from local websites such as Streetlife. com, a neighbourhood social network.

If LinkedIn has its way, however, more people like Mr Thorsen will become members of the site — without nudges from executive coaches — and expand the numbers beyond the throngs of accountants, lawyers and marketers already signed up, to include delivery drivers, waiters and joiners.

Allen Blue, co-founder of LinkedIn, wants the site to shed its elitist image as an exclusive club for knowledge workers. LinkedIn last year bought Bright, a US job site that uses a scoring mechanism to match job hunters with employers. The acquisition brought jobs to the site from sectors beyond LinkedIn’s traditional white-collar heartland.

“Now if you do a job search, there are lots of possibilities,” says Mr Blue. “There’s a growing number of blue-collar workers on the site.”

The company certainly talks big. There are billions of workers in the world, says Mr Blue, and LinkedIn has ambitions to sign up every single one of them. “We consider all of these [AS]people we can deliver value to,” says Mr Blue. Moreover, data compiled from LinkedIn members’ profiles could, for example, help employers plan where to build a factory or distribution centre based on the local labour force’s skills, he argues.

LinkedIn hopes to create the world’s first “economic graph”, its version of Facebook’s “social graph”, coined to describe its networks of friends. As Jeff Weiner, the chief executive, has explained: “We want to digitally map the global economy, identifying the connections between people, jobs, skills, companies and professional knowledge — and spot in real-time the trends pointing to economic opportunities.”

While LinkedIn is, in Mr Blue's words, "professionally paranoid" about Facebook's plans to create a professional networking channel, called Facebook at Work, he believes users prefer to keep personal and work lives separate.

Mark Perry, reader in computer science at Brunel University, says there is a pattern in tech companies' development, shared by Linked­In. "Educated higher earners are targeted first. They are lucrative for companies. There is less incentive to get those that are lower earners until the early adopter market has moved on to something else."

The problem, he says, is that people in Silicon Valley tend to know less about blue-collar workers, and they dev­elop products and services for people like them.

Nonetheless, he believes Linked­In has a good chance of extending its reach because of the individualistic nature of employment, which some sociologists say has led to the emergence of the “precariat”, a group of workers characterised by extreme insecurity: “The direction of travel in the labour market is zero-hours contracts, [AND]declining union membership, which means people will increasingly use technology to create a social network.”

James Reed, chairman of Reed, the recruitment consultancy, agrees. "The jobs market is focused on flexibility. People used to expect training from their employer. Now they do it themselves. It's all about 'Me Plc'."

Smartphones are making technology, social media in particular, more accessible to those workers not based in a conventional office. Dutch footballer Demy de Zeeuw rec­ently advertised for a new club on LinkdedIn.

Amanda Underwood, human resources director at PizzaExpress, the restaurant chain, is optimistic about using LinkedIn to recruit restaurant staff. She says that while LinkedIn is not tradit­ionally used for recruitment in the hospitality sector, “by encouraging our restaurant teams to use LinkedIn, their own networks will gather momentum and become a valuable asset”.

Others are doubtful. John Curran, a business anthropologist, observes that LinkedIn is a site where people feel they must conform to the prevailing professional culture. LinkedIn has created cultural norms that members observe, which may prove a barrier to, say, waiters, plumbers or machinists joining. The perception, he says, is that all members are suited and desk-bound. “If you can’t fit into these professional codes, you might not want to join.”

“Impression management”, described by sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life, is present in social media, he says. “You convey your identity to an audience. People curate their network to show they are successful.” If someone connects with you whom you deem inferior it could be seen as “polluting your network” and contaminating your identity.

Equally, Euan Semple, a business strategist, wonders if a class-conscious country like the UK will adapt to a career networking site that mixes blue- and white-collar workers. Robert Russell, the head of business for the Reed’s finance, legal and banking division, who uses LinkedIn to search for prospective candidates fears brand dilution if the site embraces all workers.

But Samantha Zupan, senior director at Glassdoor, the job review site, believes that neither concern should be a problem.

"We have a full spectrum of jobs. We have accounts of what it's like to work on the floor of McDonald's as well as senior engineers at Google. " Moreover, she believes that people should not limit themselves when it comes to jobs.

“People can get boxed in by blue-collar, white-collar definitions.”

Alternative approach: A specialist trade site

In 2013, Patrick Cushing co-founded WorkHands, a US networking site aimed at industrial sectors — construction, manufacturing and automotive — to include carpenters, machinists and pipe fitters. It may, he says, be hard for LinkedIn to “corral all trades into a singular site”.

His own site, which encourages members to load photos and videos of their work, may stay more useful to blue-collar workers: “Knowledge workers’ experience fits more easily into a resume. Anecdotally, we know from our work with community colleges that this is a key challenge for students in these industries.” Putting 25 years of, say, a mechanic’s experience on the equivalent of one piece of paper can prove difficult. “You can list your trade school, past employers or certifications but those tend not to have the same brand value that we’d attribute to colleges and universities.”

Most often, he says, it is the work itself that shows experience and craftsmanship. Many members had photos of their work on their phones but were not sure what to do with them. “They took pictures because they were proud of the work they’d done, not necessarily for sharing but I think that will change as web and mobile technology becomes the norm in these industries.”

On the subject of job hierarchies, Mr Cushing highlights the underlying snobbery. “It’s interesting that we’d highlight blue-collar workers as not like [senior executives]. I’ve never heard a similar point made of clerical or administrative workers who are likely paid less than most skilled trade workers. Is it because they wear similar attire?– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015