Stacks+Joules is aiming to bridge the ‘tech opportunity gap’ through computer programming training to unlock overlooked talent.
The US and other countries are facing a burgeoning skills gap – particularly in high-tech areas. Worldwide there could be a shortage of 4.3 million technology, media and telecommunications workers by 2030, according to Korn Ferry’s latest Global Talent Crunch.
At the same time, tech companies aren’t tapping anywhere near the widest pool of talent. The sector is dominated by white men for one thing. Further, training for well-paying jobs in the industry is often inaccessible to those on lower incomes and to people who don’t have access to the latest technology or the internet.
This is bad news not only for technology companies but also cities, says Michael Conway, Co-founder and President, Stacks+Joules and a former Maths teacher. Conway’s company is aiming to bridge the ‘tech opportunity gap’ through providing computer programming training for those it says are often overlooked by the tech industry, such as low-income families, people of colour and recent immigrants in urban areas.
He commented: “Part of being a smart city is taking advantage of the ‘smarts’ that exist there and the overlooked talent that exists in these communities. That connects with sustainability because when you give people these tech skills – as the city improves, they have jobs and careers that allow them to afford to stay within these improved communities.”
"Part of being a smart city is taking advantage of the ‘smarts’ that exist there and the overlooked talent that exists in these communities."
Conway founded Stacks+Joules last year with childhood friend, Jonathan Spooner, the company’s CTO. Spooner formerly worked for Intersection, the Alphabet company which delivered the LinkNYC initiative, rolling out free Wi-Fi to 80% of New York City.
“As part of our work in setting up the system and interviewing people about what they hoped to get out of it, I met a lot of people who were part of that 20% that did not live in an area where free Wi-Fi would be extended to,” Spooner said.
“I realised that this is something really big that needs to be addressed, this overlooking of these peripheral parts of society.”
Stacks+Joules is currently focused on training programmes around building controls – because of the growth in smart buildings and also because the skills then “cross over to anything that involves sensors and actuators.” Their work has initially been in Boston and surrounding cities as that’s where the pair grew up and the area is seen as one of the leaders in green and LEED-certified buildings.
So far, Stack + Joules has taught 52 students through four cohorts in three different school districts – two at Madison Park in Roxbury, Massachusetts and one each at Chelsea High School, Massachusetts and the South End Technology Center in Boston.
The high school students typically have no coding experience.
“They don’t know anything about building controls either,” Conway said. “Before I really started to dig into this, I had no idea of the huge amounts of energy and money that’s spent on keeping the environment of large buildings comfortable.”
One of the core elements of Stacks+Joules’ curriculum is teaching students to wirelessly control a lightbulb using Python. Conway and Spooner worked with researchers at MIT to develop an open source alternative to proprietary systems, such as Philips’ Hue.
The first thing the students learn to programme is a light show that’s choreographed to whatever song they choose. On day one, using a simple script, they can make one of the lightbulbs flash one colour.
“They get this instant ‘Whoa, look what I just did,’” Conway said.
Each kit has three lightbulbs and using the code they have been given, the students then work out how to make the other bulbs change colour.
Conway commented: “They’re using their natural curiosity and that takes away a lot of their anxiety. This goes back to my teaching maths – what often keeps students from learning is anxiety and lack of engagement.
"What often keeps students from learning is anxiety and lack of success and lack of engagement."
“When you engage and open it up to their curiosity and have an element of self-expression through their choice of music, they just start eating it up and that’s what we really mean by taking advantage of the talent and the smarts.”
Once the students have the basics, the curriculum gradually adds other elements of building controls. They also get hands-on experience by performing an energy audit of their school or even a commercial company, alongside professional mentors. In one instance, a commercial building owner enacted the students’ plan for a light retrofitting project, taking forward all their recommendations.
Stacks + Joules plans to extend into five school districts throughout the Boston area as well as starting a cohort in Manhattan, which will also include adult learners.
Spooner commented: “We are quite a few years ahead of when the real demand is going to hit, but we want to establish these feeder programmes towards experts in automation. I think our scalability will hit this quantum leap level where instead of just having one building automation programme per city, each city can have an incubator for all of these automation skills.”
As the company grows, the partners intend for it to remain not-for-profit and ensure the training remains free to learners.
Stacks + Joules is working with commercial companies to find ways they can underwrite part of the leaning programmes.
“They will be the eventual beneficiaries of this workforce development that we’re working on,” Spooner said.
Spooner and Conway are also looking to establish an apprenticeship model. They are working with Massachusetts state leaders as well as colleges and universities to develop this and they then hope to roll it out in other geographical areas future as well as to the wider ‘automation economy’, including robotics and autonomous vehicle production, for example.
Conway notes that the apprenticeship ‘pay-as-you-learn’ model is key for those who can’t afford to go to college, even with a scholarship.
“There’s a real pathway that we can get them on and continue to guide them on that could go all the way up to engineering or an advanced degree, but with many rungs along the way that are paid a sustainable and living wage,” he said.
The Stacks+Joules partners say they are already seeing “wholesale changes” through their work.
“We have had some students who’ve started their senior year with plans of going either to military service or hoping to get a job as a dishwasher and they have in fact changed their pursuit and are now going after jobs in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) or lighting sector,” Spooner said.