June 17, 2024


Think Differently

Broken and unreliable EV chargers become a business opportunity for L.A.’s ChargerHelp

Right place, right time, with an eye for opportunity, a commitment to economic growth for all, and a will to get things done. That’s entrepreneur Kameale Terry, co-founder of ChargerHelp, a Los Angeles startup.

She’s tackling a modern problem — the sorry state of electric vehicle public charging stations — while training an often-overlooked workforce for jobs in a growing sector of the economy.

Billions of dollars are flowing into building out a national EV charging network, with billions more in California. Outside of Tesla’s supercharging network, however, the equipment deployed by several charging companies has proven unreliable, with more than 20% of chargers overall out of order at a given time.

Without reliable public chargers, persuading people to buy EVs to fight climate change and cut pollution will be tougher.

Charger companies say they’re working hard to fix the reliability problem, boosting their own repair and maintenance capabilities, doing more training, and turning to third-party companies like ChargerHelp.

The charger sector is overflowing with young companies hoping to score in a fast-growing market. ChargerHelp, with $21 million in venture capital funding, has developed software programs for charger maintenance and repair. Unlike many competitors, the company also trains workers for network operations and field repair, with a focus on people and communities long overlooked during earlier periods of economic and technological change.

ChargerHelp “is creating great jobs, with an orientation on general and racial diversity,” said Daniel Epstein, chief executive at Unreasonable Group, which links startup companies with investors. But ChargerHelp isn’t just a do-gooder organization, he said. “They have a great business model from a cash flow perspective.”

Like many entrepreneurs in what’s come to be called “cleantech,” the opportunities came somewhat as a surprise. Terry’s story counts as an example of good luck favoring the prepared mind.

Read more: Can California pull off the epic transition to EVs? Read our coverage here

She grew up in South L.A. Her large family put strong weight on commitment and hard work. It paid off. She’s risen quickly in any organization she’s become part of. Motivated by the idea of financial success, she took a job with a bank near Philadelphia. Starting out as a part-time teller and ending up as a business-bank manager.

She loved Philly. “One of the greatest things is that there are so many black people,” she said on the Founders Unfound podcast not long after ChargerHelp was founded in 2019. She visited her cousin Ray who worked in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill. “Everybody was like a geek, and it was wild to see black wealth concentrated in such a way,” she said. It was inspiring.

Her mother’s recurring cancer brought her back to L.A. in 2016. Saving her energy for caretaking, she took relatively easy job handling customer support calls at EV Connect, a small company that makes software for charging stations. Before long, the growing company asked her to set up a call center and customer experience department.

“The charging stations would just be having these wonky issues,” she said. At the time, charger companies depended heavily on expensive electricians to fix what turned out to be software issues, on equipment for which they were not trained. There was, practically speaking, little awareness of the need for a job called “electric charger technician.”

“It would be super cool to have a workforce who wants to do that,” she said.

She left to work as a consultant to Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, where she started ChargerHelp. Her first contract was with Southern California Edison to work on electric school bus chargers. The company blasted off from there.

Terry “is a superstar who is able to share a vision for people to rally around and make things happen,” said Matt Petersen, the incubator’s chief executive. “Her story and Evette’s story is a hero’s journey for us.”

Evette is Evette Ellis, a workforce development expert Terry met at LACI and with whom she felt an immediate rapport. After watching Ellis in action, Terry brought her on at ChargerHelp, and was so impressed she made Ellis a company co-founder.

Evette Ellis, left, and Kameale Terry

ChargerHelp’s founders are Southern California natives — Evette Ellis, left, grew up in Compton and Kameale Terry in South L.A. (Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Ellis, who grew up in Compton, wasn’t sure at first. “These clean science-y white folks are good people, and they’re going to save the world, but I didn’t necessarily see myself in that space.”

But she fit right in. In the podcast interview, Terry said that executives in cleantech “talk about equity a lot, and that’s really cool to be part of.”

As a young teenager, Ellis recalls, she watched a woman behind the counter at a pool park day care center who was obviously in charge and told other people what to do. “That was my first introduction to the idea that there’s work, and then there’s the people that provide the job.” She asked to be hired and by the end of the summer had became a program coordinator.

Ellis earned her job-training chops at the federal Department of Labor’s Job Corps program, whose historic mission is training people who don’t plan to go to college for jobs in the trades. Like Terry, she joined LACI as a consultant.

At ChargerHelp, Ellis set about creating a certified training program for charger technicians, working closely with SAE International, the standards-setting organization for the motor vehicle industry. Training takes roughly six weeks before field deployment.

Beyond the technical material, Ellis emphasizes the importance of attitude. Graduating from a training program into a new job is a major step that not only affects the newly employed but future grads as well. “If you’re not giving it your all, you really are burning a huge bridge,” she says.

A field technician needn’t know software code to do the work. What’s needed is a basic understanding of how electricity works, how EV chargers work, how electric vehicles work, how to handle software programs on a computer or smartphone in concert with remote experts at a network operations center. Federal government certified safety training is an important part of the program, Ellis said.

The kind of job ChargerHelp trains for — combining familiarity with computer software, basic knowledge in electricity and electronics, and a reasonable degree of manual dexterity — will become increasingly common as software continues to infiltrate hardware in everyday life, from Ring doorbells to personal robots to apps on a car’s dashboard screen.

High school grads can do it; so can those who graduate from college but may be lacking skills that match what employers are looking for.

Heaven Holmes of Fresno graduated from Cal State Dominguez Hills in psychology and criminal justice last year and was back home job hunting when her mother saw Terry being interviewed by local TV news. Her mom said “there’s an African American woman on TV hiring here.” Something about charger repair. Holmes applied, got trained, and became a technician at ChargerHelp.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m curious and I’m always going to want to gain more knowledge,” she said. Every day is a new challenge, she said.

She’s happy to be in an industry with a future and a chance to move up the ladder. “The world is changing, and these jobs aren’t as low profile as you’d think. People are excited when they see a charger that’s been broken down for months is working.”

EV charger field technicians earn $20 to $60 an hour, concentrated in the $35 to $40 range. Certified electricians make even more. So far, ChargerHelp has trained 1,000 workers and recently began a program to train the trainers for other companies and workforce development organizations.

ChargerHelp, of course, is far from the only company developing charger software and training workers to use it. Charging network companies such as Flo, ChargePoint, and Electrify America are expanding training programs of their own.

So are charger manufacturers, including ABM. “It’s important to build awareness around the trades in general across America,” said Mark Hawkinson, ABM’s president of technical solutions. “We’re seeing a depletion of skill sets on how to maintain critical infrastructure. Our schools don’t teach shop anymore. We need to get back to those basics.”

Even companies that have relied for decades on fossil fuel dispensation have been moving swiftly into electric vehicle charging, including gas pump installer and maintainer Owl Services. “We’ve seen an uptick in the call for technicians, particularly in the Los Angeles market,” said Owl vice president Dave Patrick. L.A. represents “the highest growth potential” for the company right now.

Marcus Glenn of Detroit was recently trained by ChargerHelp but is keeping his options open. He was employed at an automobile heating and air conditioning supplier when he signed up to learn about charger repair. He successfully finished the course but is sticking with his current job — for now. The auto industry is undergoing drastic change, and layoffs are constant threat. Glenn likes knowing he’s prepared for the future. “It’s nice to have some form of stability. I’ll be looking for those opportunities and see where this leads.”

He recommends the move to others. “If you’re curious about it, be a curious cat. Go find out. There’s a lot of ways to get into this industry. There is always going to be work.”

Read more: Broken chargers, lax oversight: How California’s troubled EV charging stations threaten emission goals

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.