Training a Young Workforce to Operate Smart Buildings with Jonathan Spooner from Stacks + Joules

As technology in the built environment increases, the workforce demand for those who can properly operate these buildings also grows. On today’s episode, Kelly talks with Jonathan Spooner from Stacks + Joules, a nonprofit learning program in computer programming and wireless network management. Stacks + Joules helps train and employ young people to have careers in building automation and energy management systems. Kelly and Jon discuss a common gap in the industry – job training and workforce development, particularly for building operators. They consider how we can “leverage the genius that exists” in urban schools, lift out the digital gurus who know about networking and technology, and help transition them into the building industry where they can thrive.

Episode Guest: Jonathan Spooner, Co-Founder and CTO, Stacks + Joules 

Image of Jon Spooner

Jonathan brings a trove of experience in technology, innovation and marketing to the Stacks + Joules team. Having led innovation teams at Intersection (a division of Alphabet) and launching multiple high-tech businesses he has a wide breadth of knowledge. His entrepreneurial passion has led him to plan, budget, oversee and lead all sizes of businesses across the span of his career. A lifelong DJ having played multiple gigs around the globe he also co-founded the internet’s first DJ mix site. Jonathan speaks frequently on emerging technology innovation, and his insight has been featured in the New York Times, Ad Age, Fast Company, The Motley Fool and the Wall Street Journal, among others.


Episode Information & Resources

*Scroll down for episode transcript!


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Robb Aldrich | Kelly Westby

Production Team

Heather Breslin | Alex Mirabile | Dylan Martello | Jayd Alvarez


Episode Transcript

Kelly (00:05):

Welcome to buildings and beyond

Robb (00:08):

The podcast that explores how we can create a more sustainable built environment

Kelly (00:12):

By focusing on efficiency, accessibility, and health.

Robb (00:17):

I’m Robb Aldrich.

Kelly (00:18):

and I’m Kelly Westby.

Kelly (00:22):

When we came up with the idea for a workforce development episode last year, the world was in a very different place, especially in terms of unemployment levels. But the main gap that we discussed in this episode remains – the gap between all of the technology that we are and want to put into buildings and the people available to connect, start up, commission, operate and maintain those devices and systems. On this episode, we have Jon Spooner, Jon’s entrepreneurial passion has led him to plan budget oversee and lead all sorts of high tech businesses across the span of his career. In John’s latest endeavor, he has taken his technology background in a slightly different direction. He and Mike Conway co-founded stacks plus joules, which is a nonprofit project based learning program in computer programming and wireless network management. Their specialized curriculum engages young people and gets them the valuable skills they need to Excel in the building automation and energy management sector.

Dylan (01:19):

Hey guys, this is Dylan Martello from the passive house team at Steven winter associates. Before we dive into the episode, I wanted to let you know that the 2020 North American passive house network conference will now be hosted virtually with sessions airing every Wednesday afternoon from June 24th through July 29th. This year, I will be talking about how passive house can help buildings comply with the increasing carbon mandates enacted by cities across the U S be sure to tune in online and see my session and others by registering at com. That’s N A P H N Enjoy the show.

Kelly (02:03):

Jon, thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Jon (02:05):

Thank you for having me.

Kelly (02:07):

Great. And I so I got introduced to stacks + joules by a friend of mine, Robin, give her a little shout out on here. And I just was able to have a discussion with you and you were so passionate about what you do that I was thinking we have to get you on the podcast. So so kind of with that framework, what was the issue that you saw in the industry that you thought, “Oh, man, we really got to tackle this one.”

Jon (02:36):

Yeah. I mean, it, it really came from came from actually two separate separate sources. So I, myself and my co founder, Mike, we each we’re actually best friends from second grade. So we we’ve known each other for a long time. And, and he’s been in the education realm for 25 years and I’ve been more in the technology realm. And so we’ve been, you know, over the years, staying in touch and trying to bump our heads together, to find some way to bring, you know, the technology piece and the educational piece closer together. And, you know, we we’d stayed in touch and, and gone back and forth. And then I started really working with the Link NYC project in New York city which was basically bringing free wifi to the streets of New York. And this project was really, really amazing, huge scale, wonderful opportunity. But what we realized while we were working on that project is we had one of those link, you know, there these nine foot tall totems that are on the sidewalks in New York. And all of a sudden we got a call from a New York city police department. And they were like, Oh, Hey, we have a taxi backed over one of your link things. Can you come get it? And we were like, what, wait a minute. What? And all of a sudden, like our support center, people were having to like pull out their mom’s AAA card to get a tow truck, to go up to Harlem, to pull a taxi off of our, off of our tower. And what we would came really to the forefront of this is we might have all these amazing engineers who can build the incredible thing. But what we were missing was the second layer, the maintaining and upkeep of that technology, because one of the big things that I’ve learned in my career in technology is technology on its own is great, but technology in the wild requires tons and tons of iterative updates and maintenance and so on and so forth. And so we were really starting to see the, you know, kind of the second wave of the techno boom, as being this opportunity for, for technical specialists to come in. And as we were looking for these kinds of technical specialist roles, whether it be in, you know, in all of any of the kind of technical disciplines, Mike’s brother actually works in the BAS field and he had gone to Mass maritime and he was very, very steeped in the building automation world. And so that all of a sudden struck us as this really interesting intersection point between the growth of IOT and the internet of things and how tech is really coming in and starting to influence a lot of industrial processes. And then also the, the energy and sustainability elements to to building on a mission as well. And we saw that as two really, really vibrant kind of through lines for this industry. And the last piece of the puzzle is we were like, okay, we see this industry. It has a lot of demand and it has a lot of need for, because a lot of the workforce is graying out and how do we replace that workforce? We go to the high schools. And, and that, that really is where I think the master stroke of this whole thing came together is we went to an unexpected source of talent. And that’s really the big change that we did to this whole thing is, you know, currently there are massive energy companies that are still trying to run their own training programs. They’re trying to hire, they’re trying to build in and workforce. And, you know, they’re, they’re focused on one segment of the market, but then, you know, looking at high school students who are coming out they’re digital natives. So all of this IOT technology is really second nature to them, and they are incredibly motivated by having an impact on their community and having an impact on the energy and climate future. So having those two motivations, as well as a very good job and career growth trajectory to this industry, those three things kind of added up to be an excellent opportunity to take in and train high school students in, and also meet the challenge that the industry is facing in terms of making up that workforce gap.

Kelly (07:18):

Great. So you found a problem where the technology meets the built environment, which it sounds like your link problem was a similar sort of technology meeting, the built environment issue and then, and solve that as a, as kind of an educational issue with your partner there.

Jon (07:37):

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And, and that, that is, I mean, that’s one of the things that we’ve really started to see as we’ve gotten into this world and really seen the breadth of the industry is that, you know, when people are looking at, at LEED and all these ways that are prescribed about how to build a building and then do it in a sustainable factor. And then, you know, I was actually, I started to learn more about LEED recently, and I learned about the fact that LEED not only requires for the building of a building, but also once you take that building apart and throw it away, how do those materials go back into the system and how are they dealt with? And I thought it was fascinating because I really see workforce as part of that design equation as well. If you’re going to look at the sustainability of a building as being, what are the materials I’m bringing in and what are the materials at the end of the life cycle of the building, you also have to look at like, okay, we’ve built this amazing energy efficient building. Now, do we have the workforce to maintain that efficiency? Because that’s one of the big challenges that we find across this industry is, you know, much like our, our plight with the link is we had the high level engineers who could come up with the amazing design system. It was getting the people to go through and reset the preferences, or update the software and be able to do the work that, you know, presently is available and needs to be done.

Kelly (09:07):

Absolutely. And I think maybe I relate so much to that because I think commissioning exists in that space between, my background is, is commissioning. And we did an episode on that for this podcast as well, but it’s sort of living within the space between where the design happens and where implementation and then turnover and then operation. And so how do you actually get the value from, you know, we can propose a value from technology, but if it’s not being used or it’s not being maintained, then there is no value to it. And so you actually, you know, have to figure out a way to make sure that the industry is prepared to maintain, to get any value out of all of the products that we’re sort of all the sensors and things that we’re throwing into buildings.

Jon (09:54):

Yeah, a hundred percent because I mean, all the sensors and all the technology and all the AI in the world can be put into a building, but if it doesn’t have the person who can actually keep things going and keep the system running, you know, that that’s what’s necessary, is there still needs to be a human piece. And I mean, this kind of segues right into this the current situation we’re in with COVID and with social distancing and all of these things is, you know, the way that the world is headed right now, automation and action at a distance, and being able to control things remotely and such, that’s going to become everything that is going to become the major part of industry’s adjustment to this whole episode. So while we’re definitely training these students and in understanding the built environment and how that, that can exist, you know, we were training them pre COVID. Now all of a sudden this has taken on a whole new level of importance because now there’s no attention to air handling inside of hospitals. There’s attention to all of these other automated systems and automated processes that the built environment needs in order to maintain safety and so forth. Those are all going to be in demand once again, and having, you know, building this workforce to address that demand in the future. I know things are going to be uncertain for the near term, but once we do, and we will get out of this, there is going to be such a backlog of work of buildings that haven’t been dealt with during this period of time, but then also companies that are going to want to automate and move things to nonhuman touch type interactions. And so that, that’s where I really see a lot of the opportunity coming is from from lots and lots of companies looking to automate a lot of processes that took a human before.

Kelly (11:52):

Right. Potentially moving from A kind of, you know, nice to have a sort of fancy upgrade to a, you know, method of resiliency during a catastrophic event. And I would say we talk a lot about it in terms of future proofing especially, you know, for folks who are in, in New York city and Washington DC that are looking at, you know performance based existing building energy or carbon or energy caps for buildings. it’s too late, if you only have kind of a once a month bill for your energy consumption, that’s way too late for you to make any response to it. And so having an integrated system that you can control remotely, or at least monitor remotely the energy consumption over time, and you can kind of make tweaks to your building to ensure that you’re well within these caps, I think is going to be even more critical critical now.

Jon (12:53):

Well, and I mean, the other thing that may be forthcoming, and I don’t really know, but if, if the pause in New York extends into summer you know, heat, HVAC and such is going to be such a very, very loaded issue and having buildings that can react to peak demand and things along those lines, that’s going to be another massive, massive differentiator. Cause if your building can be tuned to actually turn on when, when there’s, you know, peak demand is past, It really does change the whole economics of the building and work within the constraints of, of the energy companies. So yeah, that’s, what I really see is, is especially with the summer, I know New York city has already started to talk about stockpiling air conditioners. I just think that we need to be ready to address the huge need of workers in the HVAC field as well. So yeah, and once again, having automation brought to that, that industry will be we’ll be helping them make, make their way through COVID as well.

Kelly (14:01):

Absolutely. And super interestingly, I know a lot of our clients have talked about the demand in commercial buildings, really not reducing very much, even though they’ve gone from, you know, thousands of people being at the building to, you know, 10 people being in these, you know 500 to a million square foot buildings in New York after, after people vacate it. So I think it’s a call to action, certainly for, for, you know, what are we doing in the buildings right now and what can we do to be more grid responsive in the future. You focus in on high school students specifically. Can you tell tell us a little bit more about, you know, why that is? Why is that the prime market that you’ve kind of gone after?

Jon (14:49):

Yeah actually, I would label it as market because honestly we are looking at this as a, a business positive move, because I mean, the one thing to know is stacks and joules is actually, we’re a nonprofit workforce program. So we do have a nonprofit at the center of our, of our, of our group, but we are looking at this as like, you know, this isn’t just help giving a hand to a community, This is looking to a community to help the industry refill it’s dwindling workforce. So it is not something that we looked at as like, Oh, how do we extend a helping hand? No, how do we leverage the genius that exists in these urban schools and lift out those digital natives who know all there is to know about connecting and networking and all, all these aspects of, of technology. And they can easily go into the building industry and thrive because of the, on, you know, the influx of technology, how technology has just changed the entire industry. And, you know, they’re, they’re showing up with those skills already. They may not have all the skills of, you know, X amount of years of HVAC training and X amount of years of experience in the lighting market. But those skills, HVAC and lighting, they can get certified towards and they can still learn while they’re working. It is the networking, the understanding of IP addresses all, all those kind of standard internet ideas and concepts. That’s the difficult thing that these companies are really, really having a struggle finding. And so that’s, you know, that’s really the, the prized skillset. They are willing to take someone who just knows enough about HVAC to understand the concept and fully understand networking and how computers can, can kind of work in that environment. So that’s really why we looked to high schoolers was, you know, there’s a great, great opportunity set. They have all the skills that we need, and they live in the built environment. They live in these urban areas. And so, you know, they’re not having to move to another city. They’re not having to move out into the suburbs, they’re able to perform their work and in amongst the city. So, you know, there were just a lot of, a lot of advantages and it’s, it’s a, you know, it’s a great pipeline for us to get exposure to talented kids as they’re making their decision of what their future is going to be once they graduate high school. And right at that point we found that honestly, high school seniors, they have the most fire under their feet because once it hits spring semester, all of a sudden the clock is ticking.

Jon (17:56):

And like, if they don’t have a plan for what they’re doing next year or this summer, you gotta figure out something. And so that we really found is a, is a motivator to, to really kind of hone their vision in on like, you know, this is a real job, this is a real career. And if you can get started in this industry, there’s a great deal of growth and a great deal of, of learning that can come with that growth. And so, so talking to students who are on the fence of like, do I want to go to college or do I want to go get a job and then go to college? You know, it, it turns it into an interesting conversation where you can talk to a company and say, Hey, look, I’m interested in, in working, but I also want to get, you know, X amount of money towards getting my undergraduate degree. And we have a student that we placed at Alberia energy in Boston, and he was hired and immediately had $5,000 a year to put towards college courses. He immediately enrolled in two courses and just upon getting hired, had already started working towards his degree. So while that isn’t, you know, that isn’t a guarantee that absolutely everyone’s going to get a job and go to college at the same time, it is definitely a model that we see. A lot of these companies are interested in exploring because if they can get an employee that early in their career and really help in the forming and the shaping of how they approach the business, you know, they get a four year headstart to train that employee and make them the utmost in value. And then that employee can, you know, train others and kind of, kind of grow as they grow Instead of what we heard a lot of the time from a lot of building owners was, you know, talking to an undergraduate who just graduated with an engineering degree, but who has no real world experience and doesn’t understand anything about, you know, the actual implementation understands the academics, doesn’t understand the implementation. So that was really what we were, what we were trying to, trying to get around was trying to get high school students who were interested in the hands on work, who also had the technical ability and, you know, saw this is a great, great way to earn money and start to learn while they’re earning. So so yeah, it just seems like it’s, it’s kind of got a lot of, a lot of supports and a lot of ways that this industry can, can help nurture this, this whole audience of talent who can really come online and do some great work right out of the gate and start to learn more and more about the industry and become experienced very, very quickly.

Kelly (20:48):

Absolutely. I think that really is a Little bit of a different model than than a lot of people are looking at in terms of kind of tapping the, you know, workforce development and how to, how to create a workforce that is going to fill this need in building automation. And I think that’s a wonderful point of, you know, I did get a college degree, but I would be, I think some of the things were relevant, but there’s definitely the on the job training is the most critical component. And certainly the gap between when we’re looking to hire entry level folks, you know, not having any experience walking around in buildings, I think it, you know, that kinds of experiences really gonna set somebody apart you know, whether or not they have, you know, a higher degree.

Jon (21:34):

Absolutely. And I mean, right, currently we’re working with a student who is, you know, set at this precipice. He’s either making the decision either way and we’re not all the way, just go take the job, forget about college. And that’s absolutely not, not our, that’s not our recommendation at all our position because we’re working with him and looking at Sunni and a couple of the other colleges that have it and, and and business related tracks that can easily ladder off of the stacks and joules training. Because I mean, that’s really, the thing is, is there is a huge benefit to that extended learning that can come about. But, you know just from my personal experience, sometimes you go into college and you don’t quite know what you’re going to do. And a lot of colleges right now, you’re just kind of starting, you’re using the college as your guide. And then you get out into the industry and the industry is like, what, why did you learn that you should have known about these seven things? So, so it really is just trying to, to make sure the industry is part of the guidance committee that actually says, Oh, here are the, here are some really valuable skills that we could hire someone today. And if they could, you know go around and fix VAV boxes like that job alone is something that we got from an early industry partner. And we have worked and, you know, focused on how do we get it so that somebody can go into a building and work on the VAV boxes. And we’ve ended up working with Niagara to get a certification and training course that basically will we’ll teach the Niagara certification to these students. And we’re actually using a kind of like an example board, which has a VAV box on it. So now they’ll be able to remotely connect to a Niagara Jace and then actually connect and control the VAV box and do any adjustments they want or whatever these are, are like the examples of the type of exercises we’re doing. We still, we touch real stuff. Like we definitely work on real things, but we also do it where we’re addressing the need that the industry said it exists. Like they want people who understand all the inner workings of VAV boxes and that’s exactly what we’re able to deliver. So it’s, it’s really trying to stay stay so that yeah, relevant, but also just stays so that the skills are applicable, like, so that they’re not coming out because I mean, the thing that I love and hate is Lego Mindstorms love it. It’s so cool. Hate it because it really doesn’t apply any job worthy skills. I mean, I don’t know anybody who gets hired for Lego robot tree, but I do know a lot of people who get inspired by doing Lego Mindstorms and then eventually move from that up into, you know, higher tech robotics. And that’s when they kind of figure out what the job is and run with it. But I think if we can keep the training so that it’s engaging and so it’s fun, but so that it actually results in something you really do. That’s, that’s the key. And that’s, that’s the challenge that gets students really turned on engaged and willing to kind of struggle and push past to figure out how to make something work.

Kelly (25:09):

Right. And I love that about when you talk about your trainings, that number one, they’re hands on as an engineer I of course appreciate that, but then they’re not abstract like this. Isn’t, you know, go think about engineering theory and then come back and talk to us. This is specifically what buttons would you press if you were in the field and you had to set up this VAB box, for example, which as an engineer is just so practical and great to me. And I do want to circle back to one thing that you said a couple of times which I always recognize as more of an it industry item, but laddering up. And we talk a little bit about kind of, I talk about a continuous commissioning approach to learning. So always kind of tweaking our knowledge, testing something out and trying something new and then building off of that. And I kind of think that’s maybe analogous to your idea of these students kind of being lifetime learners and setting them up for success in kind of a continual learning fashion with the way that you set them up for a lifestyle that they’ll be able to sort of lab ladder up over time. So I’d love, I’d love for you to expand on that for everybody.

Jon (26:17):

Yeah. I mean, that’s definitely one of the, you know, that’s, that’s, I think partially our approach to it is we’re very much a discuss it until we can kind of as a group figure it out. And so that’s one thing, you know, that’s one thing that actually, as we’ve had to transition our classes from in-person to online that’s something that’s really served us super in, in making the transition is we generally had this kind of like put an idea out there, have everybody talk about it and try to work their own ideas out in a collaborative method where everybody can kind of shout out whatever they’re thinking and nobody gets embarrassed and nobody clams up that that really leads to this concept of laddering up. Because you know, in, in the class, everybody might be a specialist at one thing, but they’re not all the same specialist, but if they all shout out what they’re thinking and what they know, all of a sudden, everybody else starts getting their advantage starts under saying, Oh, wow, you understand that piece, and I understand this piece. And we just find that, that the classes, when they’re able to kind of work with each other and, and we purposely have designed our curriculum so that we leave little gaps in, in the instructions where, you know, we just kind of throw our hands up and say, I really don’t know, man, maybe talk to that, that kid. And maybe they know, and, and all of a sudden the class starts kind of throwing ideas back and forth and you’ll just see unbelievable learning come out of this. And it isn’t just me sitting up there saying, Nope, you did this wrong. You have to reset it and push this button and have that button and dah, dah, dah, that that really doesn’t do much. Whereas when I just kind of give it to the kids and say, okay, you all figure this out. And then once you get this light to turn blue, give me a shout and leave them with that. They, as a group, like one of them will be the one who understands how to code the color blue. And one of them will be the one who understands how to network to the light bulb or whatever they will all start to share. And really, you know, realize that that iterative bump of learning is something that can all partake in and yeah, more often than not, they surprise me and are able to turn around and have that thing, Have whatever task done almost immediately. So it’s, it’s really, it’s, you know, I actually attribute this mainly to Mike cause he is the educator in charge and yeah, it’s just his approach to this, to teaching. This is very unique. I have not seen it. I mean, I’m a technologist, so I don’t have really an understanding of, of that, that realm. But but in my actual, like having to become a teacher in the past three years, he has been able to train me and get me to the point where I understand, Oh, it’s about kind of conversation is about getting the kids, not to be able to recite the information, getting the kids so they can think on the fly and do the next step on their own. That’s really what we’re going after.

Kelly (29:26):

Absolutely. And that’s actually a great point and we we’ve been doing a lot of educational work as well, a kind of training of building operators and professionals slightly different audience, but similar idea, really, if you, you know, understanding where your audience is coming from, getting participation and then thinking about what are your objectives for the program. So, you know, your objective is not that they can recite something, but that they can then go do the work, which is much more impactful.

Jon (30:02):

Yeah. And I mean, that’s definitely one thing that, that I’ve just been thinking about with these students is, so we have about, about 60 students across four cohorts throughout New York, one in the Bronx, one in the financial district. And then the other one is two classes in the Larry side. And you know, these kids are facing, you know, living in another house, not more often than not, not in a private room. They don’t know what the future holds. They’re not having a graduation, they’re not having a prom. They don’t have their friends in class. You know, they have all these challenges and all these blockers, but they show up and, and I’m just amazed because you know, this is a video conference and they’re showing up at nine in the morning on a Wednesday to check in and go over like studying HVAC, refrigerants. Like I am just blown away at this dedication and grit. And I know that a lot of the times when people are under stress, they, they, you know, a lot of different ways to react and a lot of different coping mechanisms come out. Most of these kids, what we found their coping mechanism is, is to redouble efforts and doubly focus on what we’re working on, show up and be there and just block everything out. And, you know, we’ll be on a zoom conference and every single, every other students microphones we muted. And what you’ll realize is once they, you do ask them something and they respond is they’ll turn their microphone on. And you’ll hear like little brothers jumping on beds and you’ll hear babies and dogs and kittens and all kinds of stuff going on. And you realize like these kids are sitting there, I’m telling them about like our 22 pressure at 80 degrees. And they’re fighting this Herculean battle of like trying to keep their little brother away from their computer screen. And they’re able to like still learn it. And that’s, you know, this is the thing that I just want to kind of tell the audience is that’s the type of employee you want, someone who every single card is stacked against them. There is no certainty in front of them and what do they do? How do they cope? They double down and they focus and they get to work. And so this is what we’re really doing. This is because these kids amaze us every single time we turn on to the class and they show up they’re they’re bright eyed and ready to go. And so right now we just finished they were studying their EPA six Oh eight exam. So we’re just about to take that exam online. We’re actually gonna do that, Proctor it, individually. So they will be taking that this week. And then we’re going to start working on a training for the Niagara for certification. So they’re doing real stuff and we’ve been psyching them up and getting them amped up and telling them what we have coming up for them. And they’re all just sticking with it. They’re all right there with us. So, I mean, that’s the one thing is, is having these kids realize that like, this is important and this is something that if they, you know, their college future or their next year, future is kind of a little bit fuzzy right now, at least if they focus on this, they can come out with these three certificates that we grant. And, you know, when they come out, HVAC is going to be in a boom, you have an EPA six Oh eight, you can definitely start to get a job. And so I think a lot of them are being very, very practical in the way they’re approaching this. And it’s just a Testament to their grit and determination.

Kelly (33:58):

And I think you, you kind of mentioned a bunch of things there, but to tie back to one thing that I think is sort of core to my, my belief. And I think our belief from our perspective in the industry is you have these students look at kind of lighting first which is always a good kind of basic understanding, correct me if I’m wrong and then the refrigeration and then IOT. And I think the one thing I want to call out about that, which I think is a great progression is we do see kind of from our perspective in the commissioning world is a lot of the controls integration, or sometimes I would say the controls integrators don’t necessarily have the underlying building science fundamentals or like HVAC system fundamentals. And so tying those two pieces together, you have spoken to me about in the past as a critical component of your training program. So I did want to call that out as something that I, I think is really makes a lot of sense. You know, we can’t be building IOT workforce that doesn’t understand buildings.

Jon (35:03):

Yeah, yeah. And that honestly came through my, my work in technology was, you know, you’d work at these companies that would, you know, all of a sudden pivot towards some technical discipline and they’d hire all these specialists in one certain discipline specifically around artificial intelligence, for example, like six years ago, it was big into big into working in that. The thing is, is you hire a bunch of AI specialists. They have no idea beyond just AI and just kind of math and statistics and all of, all of that information, they have no idea what you are possibly going to apply their thing to. So it really is that same idea of, you know, you might have the smartest analysis or you might have the smartest IOT connector in the world, but yeah, if they don’t understand why they’re, you know, why they’re turning on the chiller before you start the airflow like that, you know, that’s second nature to somebody who knows refrigeration, but to someone who’s just starting up starting up the airflow, like they would never think that way they would never think of like a cycle of, Oh, you have to turn this on and prime it before this goes on and such. So, so that, that’s the thing is maybe not the experience of working in the industry for X amount of years. That that’s one blocker that we definitely noticed in a lot of job hiring announcements was, Oh, it must have, you know, seven years of HVAC experience or whatever, whatever. And, you know, I really, really don’t think that that should be as much of a, of a blocker for, for a lot of these jobs because having HVAC to cram seven years of experience into three, three months, it’s a little tough. And it also is just, it’s something where, you know, you’ve got, you’ve got a lot of other, you got a lot other skills that you could spend those seven years working on and glean a lot of that experience just through, on the job experience. So, so, and you know, the other, the other big thing for me is so I went to school in philosophy and I realized that when I started versus what I came out with I came out and started working on the web because I was interested in the web. Had I gone in for the beginning, interested in the web, I would have come out programming like a text based web because that’s what I went in knowing, whereas in those four years flash and all the graphics and everything like that came to life. So if I was in college, I wouldn’t have really studied anything that was going on in the real world. And I would still be doing my text-based BBS looking webpage. So, so that’s really the difference that I see is a lot of these, a lot of these students are seeing like the current technology and their ability to work on that. And they almost see it as an opportunity lost if they go back to school because they’re going to lose their, hold on Niagara. I mean, four years from now, I’m sure Niagara is going to change and be different, or there may be another technology. So being here and now and working on it that just, you know, gets them experience, gets them the insight, and they’re able to really, really move on it.

Kelly (38:36):

Right. And that’s sort of a, to any training industry also a challenge to the construction industry, frankly like the construction industry is so slow to try something out because if you do something new in a building and it’s, you know, it’s new construction you’ve designed it today, but it won’t be in operation. And, you know, having been tested for another, you know, three years, five years, six years. So that, that timeline is so long. I think it’s the same with, you know, changing a whole curriculum can be really difficult. So how do you get a industry responsive curriculum that’s developing fast enough to train people on what we really need to learn and, and how to get that industry educational kind of public private partnership. You know, you guys are that sort of educator, nonprofit organization. How do you have that develop that partnership? That’s kind of a critical piece.

Jon (39:26):

Yeah. And, and that’s, you know, as you were saying before, the iterative approach has really just been very much throughout the DNA of our, of our company. I mean, so we started off with pretty much strictly a lighting curriculum and that curriculum grew and grew and we were able to get, we were able to get a lot of the energy conservation concepts in there, but then we started to realize like, Oh, if you’re going to go into building automation, lighting control is one of the disciplines, but there are others. And that was when we, we saw that the EPA 608 was a attainable certificate that would require not, you know, not an unruly amount of of studying to, to accomplish. So that, that was really how we saw to break. It was if we could break it into these focus centers of lighting, refrigeration and HVAC, and then IOT then of those three, we could really adjust those to stay in parody with whatever the industry needed and we don’t have to be dead on it. Doesn’t have to just be whatever the latest and greatest thing is because I mean, our lighting curriculum is a bit more abstracted. It’s, it’s basically three standard led light bulbs, but they’re controllable with color and intensity. And so the students are learning about Python and how to control those light bulbs wirelessly by writing Python programs. Now, this seems rather abstracted at first, but then we layer it over by bringing in professionals from Rab lighting and they come in and start talking to them. Oh yeah, well, we have to address each bulb. And we, we tune the lighting by, by bringing the color to the blue or bringing the color over to the orange and, you know, making, making for all these adjustments. That really are very much the same as what we were doing when we were working on the light bulbs and the light bulbs have the added benefit that our capstone project for that unit is we have the students actually take their favorite song and choreograph a light show using those three bulbs and they change, color and flicker on and off and different intensities. And so they’re able to do something expressive and fun using Python and using programming, but really kind of engendering those concepts of lighting control in the built environment. And so it’s an engaging way that they can kind of show a whizzbang cool thing, but then have some lighting rep come over and, and be able to tell them exactly in business appropriate or industry appropriate terminology, how this is reflective of scheduling. And this is reflective of, you know, daylight harvesting and all these different terminologies that they know from lighting control. They can, they can kind of align those to the project and the industry, and really start to make sense. And so, so that’s really how we see it is by engaging the students, getting them invested in getting them interested and keeping a coding of the professional language. It allows them to really get into it, but then also have something at the end that they can go to an industry event and talk about and be relevant and be understood.

Kelly (43:02):

Yeah, absolutely. It sounds like you’ve been busy. You’ve been up to a lot you know, developing all of this, but in, in five years where do you think, what do you think we’ll be talking about in five years when we have you back on the podcast?

Jon (43:18):

Wow. well…

Kelly (43:22):

Feels weird talking about that circumstance where we’ve been day to day, but..

Jon (43:28):

Like dang five days, I don’t know, but five years.. Well, I mean, one thing is, is very true is I see New York city as is poised in a very interesting opportunity. As, as this year started, we were all the, the building owners were starting to come to grips with the new environmental laws and the green laws and how they were going to be affecting buildings. And so that, that pressure was already starting and now we’re in a whole new COVID world. So that’s another pressure that’s starting. I just, I think that, you know, with the, the growth that we were talking about automation and things of that nature, I think we’re probably going to see is an expansion of expansion of looking to high schoolers for filling a lot of these technical jobs. And, and, you know, I, that that’s going to be something where, where using college college will be less of a place you go away for four years. And college will be something that is in parity with your work and helps you skill up along the way to continue on your career trajectory. So less of like a break for four years and more of like an ongoing process that you kind of take along with you as you’re progressing professionally. I think that’s definitely coming. I think that there’s going to be a big, big, big push into robotics automation and kind of, you know, telepresence and all these, all these different things. Those have all been kind of bubbling up and kind of getting early adopters to take it on, but now it’s becoming a necessity. So I think a lot of that and a lot of the infrastructure that makes all of that happen, that will become another huge, huge area of of expansion. And, you know, my hope is that once we come out of this, there will be a resetting of priorities and, and where we really choose to, to focus our education and where we really choose to focus on, you know, how to get people into fulfilling and family sustaining work. And, and so that’s, that’s my big hope is that we can kind of look at, you know, look at careers as being kind of more than just a thing to make money, but be kind of part of the continuum that makes your family work. And so, so I don’t know. I have big hopes, little hopes, realistic hopes.

Kelly (46:08):

Yeah. I was going to say we have our work cut out for us. I think a lot of people have big ideas on this podcast. Yeah. It’s going to be a long five years. Well, I appreciate you coming on the podcast and sharing all this with us and I really appreciate your enthusiasm around the industry. So thank you so much.

Jon (46:27):

Oh, absolutely. Thank you so much for the opportunity to come on. And and yeah, I was just, I would love to reach out to anybody listening, who is either interested in sharing their expertise or who is interested in talking to some of these really talented young people.

Kelly (46:42):

Absolutely the best way to reach you. We can link to that in the show notes. So that sounds perfect. Thank you so much. Again, I have been very impressed with stacks and joules model of partnering students with industry to really align skill sets with the jobs available at Steven winter associates, we are always looking to hire talented individuals to join the team. So providing a great training program to kickstart a lifelong career is always of interest to me. Speaking of careers, we have several openings still,check out our website and apply there, or find me on LinkedIn If you have any questions, if you want to learn more about smart buildings, what they really mean and what getting smarter can do for your portfolio or your next project, visit And if you want to learn more about workforce development, stacks + joules, or anything on this episode, check out our show notes at

Robb (47:34):

Thank you for listening buildings and beyond is produced by Steven winter associates. Visit S for more info on us, visit [inaudible] dot com slash podcast to get to all our episodes and to see the show notes and visits to see job openings. We have quite a few across all our offices, Connecticut and New York city, Washington, DC, and a new office in Boston. I’ve been here for just about 20 years now, and it’s pretty amazing working with brilliant people who really care about making great buildings, improving sustainability, accessibility, health affordability, durability. It’s a pretty fantastic crew. Thanks to the podcast team here, Alex Mirabile, Heather Breslin, Dylan Martello, Jayd Alvarez, Kelly Westby, and I’m Robb Aldrich. Thanks for listening.


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