MANCHESTER, NH — Spencer Thompson has a big idea and he’s launching it here in Manchester. The Prelude Institute is a cybersecurity school and staffing agency located at 150 Dow St. where students will be fully trained in six months and promptly placed with a company to work as cybersecurity analysts – at a fraction of what it would cost to earn a two- or four-year college degree.
Students emerge work-ready with no debt – the bulk of the $10,000 training costs are paid back incrementally, after an initial investment of $2,500, once you are working and earning a starting salary of $70,000-plus. And a student’s relationship with Prelude will be ongoing, more like a membership than an alma mater. As the industry evolves, a student can return for more skills training, free of charge.
The inaugural class begins April 29, and Prelude Institute is now accepting registrations for 30 students here in Manchester and also in Seattle, WA., for a bi-coastal endeavor
If there is room in the world of higher education for revolutionary ideas, this could be the one that helps kick-start the revolution and solves the problem of unbearable college debt with little return on investment, says Thompson. Like a feeder system for the new labor market.
It’s also an idea of larger proportions, designed to bring more balance to an education system that accelerates inequality resulting in what, in simplest terms, has left us with two Americas – those with freedom of choice and everyone else, Thompson says.
At 27, Thompson has already found success in the career-search niche as the brains behind Sokanu, a free career test and database he started in 2012 in Vancouver. It’s now the largest online career test and assessment tool in the U.S., with more than 15 million users.
Bringing his next venture to Manchester was part situational but mostly strategic, says Thompson.
“We have an employee in Rye who is a first-class cybersecurity instructor, so when we started thinking about where to put our first location, we thought maybe Boston. It seemed like a natural extension to ask if he could drive to Boston every day. Then I met Jim Merrill of Bernstein Shur and through him we met with the governor’s office and commissioners, and it became obvious that New Hampshire in general, and Manchester specifically, is a place that wanted to try new things,” says Thompson.
He discovered a hotbed of innovation already happening in the millyard, with industries including Pillpack, ARMI/Biofab and Oracle/Dyn as a solid hub of tech-based businesses that was not just inviting, but encouraging.
“With tech companies already established here there are already potential employers for us to actually funnel people into, as well as areas around New Hampshire that need help, which goes back to my thesis that we’re not doing Prelude for the top percentage of people but for all people,” says Thompson.
His thesis is so far proven, developed over the past decade out of his own experience as a high school student in Vancouver wondering where his place in the working world would be. Back then the outlook for Thompson and his fellow 2009 graduates was not clear.
“I grew up in Niagara Falls, a manufacturing town, and the context of why that is important is that all the employment opportunities had been at GM and Ford. My father made axles and suspensions for a living, and that industry experienced 65 percent unemployment the year I graduated,” Thompson says.
His dad got laid off when Thompson was in 11th grade.
“I started asking my friends what they wanted to take in university – which as you know is cheaper and less elitist in Canada – and everyone said health sciences. It was an astronomical rate – 50 percent of kids from my high school went into health sciences, which shocked and confused me,” he says.
They were led down a path of least resistance by well-meaning but pre-programmed guidance counselors who really had no good reason for sending them into that particular field, except that it was the higher-ed mantra at that time.
That was a turning point for Thompson. He decided to take a year off to study the phenomenon of groupthink among his peers, and perhaps come up with a way to fix an education system that was failing to point people toward relevant jobs. He immersed himself in research that got at the root of human action and reaction.
“I read hundreds of books on neuroscience, psychology, human development, parenting – I became obsessed with how people develop over time, specifically related to education and career decisions. And the real answer is they don’t. It comes from our parents and friends, and macro-environments,” Thompson says.
He absorbed concepts like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, a psychological construct in pyramid form built on a foundation of basic human need, on which all else is dependent. Self-actualization – one’s desire to be all that they can be – is the ultimate motivation.
He deduced that career paths are most often set by the experience of those we know. Your dad is a welder, and so you might go in that obvious direction. Your uncle is a biologist, so you explore that familiar path. You see something on television and accept the message that it might be a good fit for you – and anyone else tuned in – without a concrete connection to your own aptitudes or interests.
“All this dogma affects how people make career decisions, and I realized that one of the only industries that remains exclusively off-line was careers,” says Thompson. In a world where you can swipe left for a date, or a song, or even a job, there were no online resources making it easy or logical to find a career match, he says.
He launched career-explorer platform Sokanu – the company name a homophonic version of So Can You – as a free assessment and career test designed to help people match ideal careers with their particular interests, all while collecting data to better serve the career-seeking public. Users answer a battery of more than 300 questions measuring things like personality, hard skills, and ideal job requirements. In about 20 minutes, Sokanu provides a series of career paths based on a user’s unique responses.
Now with offices operating across the U.S. and Canada, Thompson had time to drill down and develop a more specific business plan that could help bridge the “skills gap” we hear so much about by training students for a growing yet unfilled employment need: Cybersecurity, a growing and ever-changing field.
In a nutshell, a cybersecurity analyst helps protect an organization’s information and computing assets, as well as the private data of the organization’s users and customers.
“Think about advanced manufacturing, for example. There is a shortage of 2 million jobs. Yet there is a narrative politicians keep telling us, that manufacturing here in the U.S. is dying, and all the jobs are going to places like China. It’s just not true,” says Thompson.
“Manufacturing jobs are actually coming back, they’re just different than they used to be. A welder trained in the 1970s might need a month to get certification in software and autocad, and be qualified for jobs that didn’t exist 30 years ago,” he says.
Like many other visionary entrepreneurs of his generation, Thompson operates outside the traditional MBA mold. He attended the London School of Economics to study economics and econometrics, but didn’t finish. He was a Thiel Fellowship finalist in 2011 — a tech-based award given to innovators who’d rather “build new things than sit in a classroom.” He serves as an advisor for job-match marketplace Vocate, aimed at students still exploring their passions, and also with New Ground Ventures, a mission-driven venture fund out of Westport, CT, and is co-founder of a new fund focused on reducing inequality through making investments in the future of access to labor.
If a prelude is an introduction to something fully realized, like the lead-in to a symphony, then Prelude Institute is the first movement toward the career soundtrack of one’s life. The days of entering an industry where you stay until retirement with little variation are behind us, says Thompson.
Preparing the next generation to be nimble and proficient in any number of accelerating fields is what Prelude Institute is all about.
“The real reason people don’t go into manufacturing today is the stigma gap. The narrative being told by every president and government entity for the last 50 years is that you must go to college for four years, and that trades are uncool,” Thompson says.
Although that narrative is beginning to shift, the dominant message is still for high school students to go to a university and make their way toward a high-tech career, because that’s the future.
These stigma gaps have led to skills gaps, says Thompson.
“Do you know how many medical stenographers, medical coders, and nursing assistant jobs are unfilled? We need 3.5 million of those in America right now. In Texas, a nursing assistant is a pretty good job. You can make about $40,000 and you only need 3-6 months training. Still, we see people going into the same 15 careers because that’s all they know,” Thompson says.
When it comes to selecting cybersecurity as Prelude Institute’s first foray into lean and accelerated job training and placement, Thompson sees it as an obvious choice.
“Cybersecurity tends to scare people off. It sounds like you have to work in China or South Korea, and have to be the scary guy in the building. The reality is much closer to manufacturing or coal mining or any other pattern-based career, as opposed to traditional high-tech Web development jobs,” Thompson says. “We believe a significant portion of the population can actually be trained to be cybersecurity analysts, they just don’t know it yet. That’s one of the hardest marketing challenges that exists.”
Prelude Institute will take people who either have been left behind in the current job market, or who’ve tried different careers and still haven’t found their groove, and move them from zero to cybersecurity experts in six months. A similar operation has been established in Seattle, and the East Coast/West Coast symbiosis will allow the students to work remotely, one of the many skills required for the job.
Certainly there is a basic skill set required of candidates, says Thompson.
“If you have grit and you’re willing to work really hard, and think like a security person – meaning you’re naturally skeptical and think about the world in really interesting ways – that’s our prerequisite. We’ll teach you to do the rest,” Thompson says.
Learning how to use spreadsheets and email are the basics, and by the end of six months students will be versed on cryptography, understand how to read logs in the system and be ready for a job in the field, on day one.
“We don’t care about past education or experience. The diversity of candidates we have so far is amazing, people who were homeless or addicts, people who used to be welders under water, or veterans – that’s the whole point of the business,” he says.
As he sees it, Prelude Institute is part of a new infrastructure that can reduce inequality by increasing social mobility and creating an ecosystem of matching prepared workers with existing but relevant jobs.
“What people don’t think or talk about so much is why there’s largely two Americas, those at the top and those at the bottom. The real reason is because of purchasing power. Think about people in a position to choose where they want to go to school, where they want to grow up where they want to purchase a home – 95 percent of the population can’t do that. They get told what to purchase, told where to go and they get marketed local schools, they don’t realize – when that takes 4-6 years and an average of $50,000 in debt, plus 5 percent interest over time, is actually $75-80,000,” he says.
“Take that piece and the six years on average to get through a degree program, and then think about being a single mom trying to go back to school. You can’t have years and $50,000 to get there,” says Thompson. “The system is broken.”
Although Prelude Institute is reminiscent of other systems around the world including Germany’s apprenticeship model, for one example, Thompson says as a private company with membership and retraining at its core, he knows of nothing else structurally like this in the U.S.
He does not subscribe to the notion that robots will be taking over for humans in the 21st century economy, but rather that a new system is required to connect humans to the growing number of jobs being created and continually evolving.
The Prelude Institute solves problems, answers questions, creates opportunities and helps build an economy that’s been beyond our grasp by doing things the same way, Thompson says.
“We plan on being huge here in a few years. Our goal is when you drive by the waterfront and see all the signs for universities, we’d love to be one of those big buildings you see,” he says. “We want to invest here for a long time to come.”
Classes now forming in Manchester and Seattle. Click here to sign up for the inaugural class at The Prelude Institute, 150 Dow St., Manchester, NH, set to begin April 29.