At the intersection of energy conservation and youth employment, a new career-training program is taking shape in urban high schools across the United States. The non-profit Stacks+Joules aims to build a strong new labor force of engineers and technicians skilled in the complex computerized systems that control equipment in modern buildings.
With pilots rolled out across the Boston area at Chelsea High School, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School and at the South End Tech Center, the program is slated for expansion to New York City and Los Angeles in advance of a national roll-out.
Why Concentrate on Training High School Students For Building Automation and Controls Jobs?
The 2014 Building Asset Rating (BAR) Study, sponsored by DOE and Massachusetts found that misconfigured building automation systems are a leading cause of poor energy performance in commercial buildings. In 50 facilities located throughout the Boston area the BAR study found near universal controls problems.
The facilities heated and cooled spaces at the same time, fan systems operated independent of schedules and large percentages of office lighting failed to take advantage of modern energy saving features. In buildings both large and small, building management system programming was to blame.
“The HVAC Controls Industry is experiencing a significant labor shortage and the future doesn’t look much different. ”
– Steve Feinberg, President, BCM Controls
Across the energy efficiency sector, as high as 80% of employers report consistent difficulty finding qualified job applicants, with over 40% finding it “very difficult.” Employers attributed hiring difficulty to lack of qualifications, education, training, experience, and/or technical skills.
This labor shortage is surprising, as salaries for controls professionals are at the top of many environmental and efficiency pay scales.
Two Underlying Causes of the Building Automation Labor Crisis
- The building controls industry is experiencing rapid change. Over the last five years the central players in the building controls industry have transitioned from large Fortune 100 corporations that can afford to subsidize training, to small regional firms that lack comprehensive staffing strategies.
- Companies are not succeeding in attracting young people to the rapidly expanding opportunities. Young people too often associate the industry with “dirty hands” mechanical trades instead of coding, programming and data aggregation and analysis.
Stacks+Joules Opens Up the Industry
Stacks+Joules is a collaborative effort with MIT-based BELLEDS Technologies. From day one, students are engaged in hands-on, career-focused learning. They master application programming indexes (API), develop their own lighting control APPs and learn the fundamentals of building controls.
Utilizing the six million colors available on the wireless BELLEDS LEDs engages students’ creativity to accelerate their understanding of the role controls play in realizing energy savings. For the capstone project, each student programs a complex, choreographed light show set to their favorite music.
No Net Cost and Future Proof
Much of the work that the Stacks+Joules students are being trained for can be completed at no net cost to building owners. The long-term savings these students will enable come with huge environmental and financial benefits.
A 2016 Department of Energy study found that re-tuning controls of more than 70 federal buildings achieved a median 15% energy savings. That benefit can be achieved anywhere enough workers can be trained to make and manage system optimizations.
At a time when so many well-paying careers are being outsourced, opportunities in building automation and controls standout for their growing importance and the fact that they are truly future proof.