EV chargers down? ChargerHelp is training a diverse workforce to fix them

The U.S. plans a massive rollout of EV chargers. Who’s going to keep them all working? This L.A.-based startup has an approach it’s taking nationwide.

An African American man in a black shirt repairs an electric-vehicle charging station
Marshawn Porter is an EV charging station technician and logistics coordinator at ChargerHelp. (ChargerHelp)
  • Link copied to clipboard

Pull up to a gas station, and you’ll likely find rows of pumps overseen by attendants in nearby booths or stores. But stop to charge an electric vehicle and you might find yourself alone in a parking garage, next to a curb, in a desolate parking lot or beside a pharmacy. EV chargers, whether they’re in public or private spaces, rarely have on-site employees to make sure everything is working properly. That means flooding, trash, rust, vandals, wasps and software bugs can all disrupt service and leave EV drivers low on electrons.

That’s where Jerry Saunders steps in. 

Saunders is a technician in New York City for ChargerHelp, a startup that services and repairs EV charging stations in nearly a dozen states. The Los Angeles–based company works with station operators, utilities, software firms and manufacturers so that drivers can charge up as seamlessly as if they were filling their gas tanks — only without the noxious air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that spew from tailpipes.

Subscribe to receive Canary's latest news

A typical workday for Saunders starts in his apartment in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where the 35-year-old technician was born and raised. His supervisor sends a work order showing where Saunders is needed: a municipal parking lot in south Brooklyn, perhaps, or across the river in New Jersey. Often, it’s a parking garage in Manhattan, where the vast majority of New York City’s 1,500 public charging plugs are installed.

An African American man in a work uniform sits on a green metal bench outside a brick apartment building
Jerry Saunders, an EV charging station technician at ChargerHelp, sits outside his apartment building in Brooklyn. (Maria Gallucci/Canary Media)

Wearing a black polo shirt and hat bearing ChargerHelp’s orange logo, Saunders hops into his (gas-powered) car and drives to the service site. Along the way, he calls the EV station operator and asks them to turn off the electrical supply to the charger. Then he parks and sets about solving the mystery of the malfunctioning machine. 

I like it. If I reach a point where it’s challenging, I want to sit back and actually figure out how I can get this done,” Saunders told Canary Media on an unusually balmy February afternoon while seated on a green bench outside his brick apartment building. 

The issue might be an error code in the station’s software, wear and tear on the wires, or broken parts. Sometimes, the problem is as mundane as a ripped QR code sticker, which drivers scan to access the charging system. Saunders makes his fixes, then uses a handheld testing device to ensure the EV station is giving a charge. If there are issues he can’t resolve, he flags them for the station’s operator. All of this he diligently documents through ChargerHelp’s app for logging and analyzing maintenance work. Finally, he tidies the site and waits for his next work order.

A car parked next to an EV charger marked with graffiti
(Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

Saunders isn’t an electrician or an engineer, and he doesn’t need to be for this job. Before joining ChargerHelp in April 2021, he repaired the clunky blue bicycles that circulate in New York City’s bike-share system. ChargerHelp provides extensive training for new hires. The company, which was founded by two Black women, also partners with workforce development programs to ensure that diverse groups of jobseekers can readily compete in the rapidly growing EV industry.

ChargerHelp sees workforce development as critical to its work. What we’re really preparing for is, when we go into these communities and have to hire quickly, we already have a pipeline of folks” with training and certifications, said Kameale Terry, co-founder and CEO of ChargerHelp. Especially as [the industry] puts more stations in the ground.”

Step one: Build EV chargers. Step two: Ensure they work.

Before Saunders started working for ChargerHelp, he didn’t see much EV charging infrastructure around the city. It wasn’t immediately clear to him where he’d be doing his work, he said. Now, however, he notices more charging stations, both because he knows where to look and because city agencies and companies are investing millions of dollars to deploy more charging plugs for electric cars, trucks and delivery vans.

A quick stroll from Saunders’ apartment complex is a superhub” of 25 fast-charging plugs run by electric mobility startup Revel. The sprawling lot opened last June to provide charging for the bright blue Teslas in Revel’s ride-share fleet, and the superhub is open 24/7 to the public. One recent afternoon, a woman was charging her dark gray Polestar 2 sedan, while a white Waymo Driver vehicle — equipped with cameras and sensors to develop self-driving technology — was plugged into a nearby charger.

I’m like, Let me get in on this now,’ because it’s something that is on the come-up and can be a life-changing situation,” Saunders said of his job. I can say I was there when it first started.”

The widespread rollout of public EV charging infrastructure is essential to driving the shift away from polluting petroleum vehicles, experts say. Drivers on the go need to know they won’t run out of juice while in transit. EV owners without garages need a communal place to charge that doesn’t involve dragging an extension cord out their window to the curb.

To that end, New York City aims to install 40,000 public Level 2 charging plugs and 6,000 fast chargers citywide by 2030. At the national level, the Biden administration is preparing to spend up to $7.5 billion in federal infrastructure funds to increase the number of public EV charging stations nationwide by more than tenfold this decade.

Increasingly, EV charging programs across the country are prioritizing installations in both low-income ZIP codes and communities of color, which earlier initiatives tended to overlook. Until Revel built its hub last year, Bedford-Stuyvesant — a predominantly Black neighborhood with a higher-than-average poverty rate — didn’t have any of the public charging stations that dot the streets of nearby wealthier, whiter communities.

An empty parking lot with many blue EV chargers
Revel's EV-charging "superhub" in Brooklyn is the first of many such sites New York City will need to meet its aggressive EV goals. (Nicholas Rinaldi/Canary Media)

Still, given the focus on building new charging infrastructure, policymakers and technology developers risk ignoring another pressing concern: Stations need to be regularly maintained after they’re built, and it’s not always obvious who is responsible for the upkeep, said ChargerHelp’s Terry.

We don’t realize that as we install these things, a lot of times they’re breaking,” she said. What is the spend for going out and fixing them?”

Unlike Tesla, which runs a nationwide network of Superchargers primarily for Tesla drivers, the remaining EV market is much less uniform. Different companies manufacture charging hubs and plugs, provide various software services, and operate the stations, resulting in a mashup of vendors and warranty plans.

Industry analysts say it’s hard to know how often charging stations go offline or provide suboptimal service, mainly because network operators don’t externally share that information. But it’s enough of an issue that Ford Motor is dispatching representatives to inspect public fast-charging stations nationwide so that drivers don’t become so fed up with faulty stations that they regret buying Ford’s Mustang Mach-E or other electric models, E&E reported in January.

It’s not just about making sure the plug works. It has to work in the way that someone expects it to,” said Nick Nigro, the founder of Atlas Public Policy, which tracks data on EVs and charging networks. For instance, if a fast charge doesn’t deliver as much charge as quickly as promised, the driver might have to wait much longer than usual for a full charge or hunt for another plug.*

The first generation of EV owners was highly motivated and willing to roll with such inconveniences — but subsequent generations won’t be. Once we move into more mainstream markets, you don’t have that kind of leeway with EV customers,” Nigro added. You’re going to have to be more reliable and predictable.”

Terry said she first became aware of the need for field technicians while working at EV Connect, a charging-station software vendor based in Los Angeles. Terry was head of customer experience and later a program director. When customers flagged a station as inoperable, she often drove to the site herself to figure out what was wrong. Usually, the problem was related to software and communications, not electrical equipment, and couldn’t be diagnosed remotely, she said.

Two African American women stand side by side
ChargerHelp co-founders Evette Ellis (pictured left) and Kameale Terry (ChargerHelp)

In January 2020, Terry launched ChargerHelp with Evette Ellis to begin filling the void in EV charger maintenance. The co-founders joined the nonprofit Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator and gathered $400,000 through grants and pitch competitions. In March 2021, ChargerHelp raised $2.75 million from Trucks VC, Kapor Capital, JFF, Energy Impact Partners and The Fund. The investment made it possible for ChargerHelp to grow its team to 35 people, including 20 technicians like Saunders.

Now, Terry is back working with EV Connect, this time as a partner. EV Connect offers charging providers a premium Shield” plan that allows them to bundle the multiple warranties and services covering a station’s hardware and software — and includes maintenance assistance from ChargerHelp technicians as needed.

Two African American women wearing face shields stand in front of a team of several dozen employees in uniforms
ChargerHelp co-founders Evette Ellis (front left) and Kameale Terry (front right) stand with their team of electric vehicle charging station technicians. (ChargerHelp)

At the end of the day, everyone just wants these things to work,” said Daniel Bryant, director of customer experience at EV Connect. He likened charging stations to other essential appliances, such as an ATM or a communal washing machine, that people expect to see fixed as soon as possible.

The ability to get someone out there within hours instead of days is really important for us,” he added. ChargerHelp is able to offer that kind of turnaround, as well as provide highly trained, EV-knowledge-specific field technicians.”

Leveling the playing field for future EV jobseekers

Lately, ChargerHelp has expanded its training efforts to include not just employees like Saunders but also larger groups of jobseekers, who are eager to learn the fundamentals of EV charging station maintenance and repair. 

On a frigid February morning, Clyde Ellis stood at the front of a classroom on the third floor of a historic church in Bedford-Stuyvesant. About 25 adults sat behind long tables, laptops open in front of them, as Ellis explained some of the basics of EV charging technology, such as the difference between a conventional charger and a smart” plug that can be programmed to replenish EV batteries when electricity rates are cheapest.

Ellis is ChargerHelp’s field service supervisor. The startup is working with Brooklyn-based BlocPower to provide the foundational training” on EV charging stations to 200 people in New York City by the end of 2022. The sessions are part of BlocPower’s $37 million, city-funded program to train 1,500 people and help them get clean-energy jobs, particularly within communities experiencing gun violence.

Whether it’s EV chargers, solar or Wi-Fi, how do we train folks from disadvantaged ZIP codes to get into an industry they’ve historically had barriers entering?” Keith Kinch, BlocPower’s co-founder and general manager, said via video call. How do we build out this model for communities and build opportunities long-term?”

An African American women speaks to a classroom full of adults
Evette Ellis speaks to participants at a "foundational training" on EV charging infrastructure in Brooklyn on February 2, 2022. (Maria Gallucci/Canary Media)

Clyde Ellis himself was new to the EV industry when he joined ChargerHelp in January 2021, having previously worked in California’s oil and gas refineries. At the workshop, along with presenting technical materials, he also spoke about the realities that people of color might face in the field: being unfairly scrutinized by customers for how they dress or act, or feeling out of place in an industry that’s still largely perceived to be white, wealthy and male.

What I personally am working hard to create is…a safe place, where everybody feels that they’re welcome,” co-founder Evette Ellis said from a side room at the training workshop. As ChargerHelp’s chief workforce officer, she says she often asks herself, Have we set this up to be diverse for women and people of color and LGBTQ+ people?”

The goal of the Brooklyn workshops is to give participants baseline knowledge of the electric-vehicle industry and broader climatetech scene so that they can capably apply for the coming wave of EV-related jobs, including potential positions at ChargerHelp. Beyond Brooklyn, ChargerHelp plans to lead foundational trainings in Georgia, Michigan and North Carolina, as well as in the company’s home base of Los Angeles.

Ellis and Terry both emphasized that workforce-development initiatives can only go so far to help diversify the nation’s burgeoning EV industry. Companies need to intentionally recruit from these programs. 

And, in ChargerHelp’s case, EV charging providers must prioritize maintaining and fixing their stations and investing in field technicians.

For us, if we don’t get contracts, we can train all the people in the world and they won’t have jobs,” Terry said. We have to have both.”

***
*Clarification: This sentence originally included a confusing use of watt and watt-hour units. It has been recast for clarity.

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.