This NYC job training program is helping young adults pivot to high-earning careers

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By Dan Sears

A group of adults eager to switch careers or leave their low-wage gigs graduated from a unique job training program last month, ready to work in a growing industry: managing modern-day buildings.

The 14-week workforce development program, run by the nonprofit Stacks+Joules, works to train New Yorkers from largely disadvantaged backgrounds to operate buildings that now rely on technology and apps to run more efficiently. The program propels them into jobs where pay starts at nearly $60,000 a year and prepares them for an industry desperate to hire and expected to grow as New York City aims to go carbon neutral by 2050.

“I see a lot of other workforce programs that are like ancillary skills, but they’re not directed at the job. This is one educational tenant that is really definitive of Stacks+Joules, is not teaching the overview, but teaching an incredibly specific task,” said Jonathan Spooner, co-founder of Stacks+Joules. “The outcome has to be employment. It has to be a job.”

Unlike some other workforce training programs that are more broad, Stack+Joules has a narrow focus that’s successfully helped most of its graduates get jobs in the industry. The program has enrolled more than 100 people since launching in 2017, with nearly 88% of the students completing the workshops. In the prior four cohorts, 83% of graduates are employed with most working in the clean energy sector.

Narrowly tailored workforce training programs like the ones run by Stacks+Joules may be critical for Mayor Eric Adams’ goals to spur an “inclusive economy.” In December he announced the city will invest $600 million in workforce training programs around the city to prepare 250,000 young New Yorkers to enter a changing workforce. Stacks+Joules doesn’t receive any city funding but is already planning on launching its next class next month.

The graduates from the workforce development program at Stacks+Joules learned about building automation to prepare them for jobs where pay starts at $58,700.

Photo by Karen Yi

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A 2020 study commissioned by the city found training programs focused on specific industries significantly increased earnings for participants compared to more general training programs. The Stacks+Joules training works largely with young people, placing them in a specific career, and experts say this approach can help job-seekers secure higher pay and increase their likelihood of staying in that line of work.

The city’s workforce programs range from longer credentialing or apprenticeship programs to high school equivalency workshops or programs that focus on getting people to enter the workforce.

“Traditionally the workforce [training programs] was often thought about as something that happens when you’ve not successfully launched into careers and sort of as a second chance system or as a way to upscale or re-skill as the jobs change,” said Abby Jo Sigal, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Workforce Development.

“It’s certainly all of that. And that is super important. But we also need to really think about how we make sure young people are launching into fulfilling, economically-secure careers.”

Workforce development experts say this program models what happens when private industry works with social service nonprofits and educators to identify — and train — the future workers they need.

“Not many of us can work our way out of poverty,” said David Garza, CEO of Henry Street Settlement, a social services nonprofit that partners with Stacks+Joules. “But it’s when you access an opportunity that is a pathway to that level of economic self-sufficiency, then the other stuff can come into play, whether it’s providing for your family or saving for retirement. So it’s definitely a very intentional commitment to work in sectors where there’s high demand, but where there’s higher wages.”

“I want to be able to give my kids something”

During one of the Stacks+Joules classes in November, about 20 students filed into a Henry Street Settlement building in the Lower East Side, adding the finishing touches to their PowerPoint presentations.

“A lot of people have test anxiety, and they struggle with even trying to study or take a test,” said Fran Peral, a graduate of the program who now leads the classes. “We put them into groups so they can dissect the material, the reading so that they can explain it to one another.”

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Through the Stacks+Joules program, most students graduate with several technical certifications on electrical lighting, and heating and cooling systems. A majority find work, with three-quarters of graduates landing jobs in the green economy, data from the program shows.

Brandon Roman, 31, said he enrolled in the program to transition away from customer service jobs, including his prior gig working at a spy museum.

“The learning stops and things start to repeat. But here, it’s something new,” he said. As a single father, he said he wanted a better future for his 11-year-old daughter, with the dream of one day buying a home for them to live in. “It’s going to be a real change for my life, for my daughter’s life going into this.”

The four instructors — all former graduates of the program — spent the day quizzing the class on low pressure gauges, recovery refrigerants and the ozone depletion potential for their eventual certification tests. Most students said they knew little about the industry until they started the training.

Alex Collazo, 22, demonstrates a programming software to operate lighting systems after graduating from the Stack+Joules training program.

Photo by Karen Yi

Armitina Smith graduated from the program in May, with an all-female cohort of mostly mothers. She’s now one of the assistant instructors.

“This was the first time I’ve ever sat in front of a computer and learned coding and was able to learn things and integrate software to make things work,” she said.

Smith said she’s done other workforce training programs before that would train her to work in security or clerical or maintenance work, but that wasn’t enough for her and her four kids.

“I wanted to be able to give my kids something and leave them something and be able to build some type of generational wealth,” she said.

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Removing the barriers

In December, the Adams administration said it wants to reimagine job training programs to start earlier to target young New Yorkers and get them successfully launched into higher-paying work in high-demand industries.

A city action plan said about one out of six New Yorkers between the ages of 16 to 26 were out of work and school in 2021 and were more likely to earn less, have lower household wealth and worse health outcomes.

“There’s an awareness in the city right now, especially as it relates to workforce development, that we can do better. That the linkage between workforce development and economic development is what leads a city to have and demonstrate economic growth,” said Gregory Morris, CEO of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition.

Stacks+Joules co-founder Michael Conway, a longtime educator, said the partnership with Henry Street Settlement is instrumental to their success.

“They remove any possible barrier to full engagement. Anything that comes up, Henry Street is there to remove these barriers,” he said. “If someone needs a MetroCard, transportation’s becoming an issue, they get it.”

The city is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050, meaning even more employers are looking for workers who can manage green, modern buildings efficiently and integrate tech.

Anthony Lesaine, 19, said he opted out of going to college this fall to sign up for the training program instead. He used to be a child actor and starred in Broadway shows but didn’t want to continue pursuing that path.

“At a young age like this, knowing this information, it’s going to work out for me,” he said. “Most of us are going to get a job. Most of us. I feel like we’re all ready.”

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