How a tech school helps refugees break into Germany's job market
Meet the people behind a school that's hoping to close the talent gap in Germany's tech industry – while helping refugees and migrants kick-start their career in their new country.
This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.
Anne Riechert is originally from Denmark, and moved to Berlin in 2012 to set up the Berlin Peace Innovation Lab in association with Stanford University. She noticed that when talking to some of the 1.2 million refugees that arrived in Germany in 2015, the majority of adults primarily wanted to find a way to make their own money, and with that, find independence and dignity.
At the same time the German tech industry found itself losing money every year due to a lack of technical talent. Despite not having an education in programming, Riechert saw a solution: ReDi school, which helps connect refugees and people from forced migration backgrounds to the tech industry.
"When we started the school five years ago, there were 42,000 available jobs in tech in Germany. ReDi school in many ways is a win-win situation – closing the talent gap in the tech industry as well as bringing refugees and migrants into work," says Riechert.
The number of available tech jobs has only grown – in 2019 there were 124,000 open IT-related jobs in Germany. Research conducted by the Robert Bosch Stiftung concluded in 2018 that tech jobs are uniquely suited to the needs of refugees, as employers in this field value demonstrated skills rather than a completed university degree, which many refugees may not have, having been forced to flee their countries before completing their education.
Schools like ReDi Integration, which Riechert and a small team founded in 2016 in Berlin, offer free courses that teach technical skills, such as coding courses for 'newcomers' as well as for locals without access to a digital education or professional networks.
Riechert tells The Local: ''ReDi School is not only a tech school for refugees, it's a tech school for marginalised people who are not able to afford a digital education programme. We have a special focus on integration of people with a forced migration background, but integration is always a two-way process.''
The school now operates in six cities – Berlin, Munich, Düsseldorf, Duisburg, Essen and Copenhagen.
Tech schools as means to refugee employment
At the time of their beginning, Riechert hadn't observed a similar programme operating elsewhere. Her background in corporate social responsibility and social innovation, which she spent time in Japan researching, influenced her meeting with Mohammed, a refugee from Syria, at Eid al-Fitr in Berlin-Buch. He explained to her that he had studied IT in his home country but, without access to a computer, feared that he would not be able to develop new skills in the fast-moving IT industry.
Originally a new concept, ReDi now joins five other coding schools for refugees in Germany alone that have existed since 2015. Obtaining tech skills is a good fit for the needs of many refugees, as research has shown, not only as entry to the industry does not necessarily require a degree, but also because English language skills, which many refugees have, are often sufficient enough to get by on rather than requiring fluency in German.
However as the same report describes, obtaining a job in the tech sector is not entirely assured by the existence of tech skills, and employment in the industry rests on a number of factors, with many employers still preferring a degree level education and German language fluency.
While not all refugees who take part in these programmes may obtain jobs that directly require tech skills, the advantages for those that do are invaluable, and include higher incomes for families and the creation of refugee networks in the German tech industry. Meanwhile, those who do not obtain jobs directly in, for example, coding, can utilise other services the school provides such as networking with companies and improving their CVs to obtain other jobs.
ReDi school has a successful track record getting individuals with refugee backgrounds employed within the tech sector.
Out of the courses that the school offers, their high-end tech programme, which hosts coding lessons as back-end, front-end web development, data analytics and UX Design, has a record of 50 percent of alumni obtaining jobs in the tech industry, with 25 percent in industries that require tech skills and the remaining looking to become further qualified through higher education or apprenticeships.
As Riechert notes with a smile: ''We started seeing refugees who studied with us gaining traction from the job market from the first semester in 2016. That was in May or June when our partners started recruiting our first students into jobs.''
Part of the success of ReDi school comes from their successful collaborations with other partners, such as the city of Munich, who approached the-then small team to start a new school in Munich and offered to pay the salaries of part of their staff. Their new school in Düsseldorf is supported by companies Accenture and Microsoft. As of 2020, the non-profit boasts several major partners such as Cisco and Deloitte that provide the non-profit financial help, material for courses and direct links into some of Germany's largest businesses.
Astrid Aupperle is Head of Philanthropies at Microsoft Germany. The company has been working with ReDi school for three years and she tells The Local: ''We help with volunteers, grants and infrastructure, especially during the pandemic we helped ReDi establish online classes. Four or five people who are alumnis from the ReDi school have now found a job at Microsoft Partners."
While the tech skills that ReDi school offers in the form of free courses provide opportunities for refugees to obtain hard skills and sometimes, direct employment, Riechert says: ''There can be no job market integration without social integration. That of course is a combination of many things and sub skills – such as languages and also very much of a network, whether that be a professional network or simply just having friends.''
Abdulsalam Hamdan has been involved in ReDi school now for around two years. Originally from Syria, he was studying his Masters in Electrical Engineering when he ran into difficulty in finding internships to complement his studies.
''I received a lot of rejections and in the meantime, while I was applying, I was introduced to ReDi school in their early stages. I originally joined ReDi school to see if it would help me with soft skills or certificates that I could use to apply with," he says.
"I did multiple courses, including programming and entrepreneurship. There were also multiple company visits which were interesting and helpful as we were able to talk to the employees. We went to Coca Cola and several smaller startups. Those visits were really eye-opening in seeing who I wanted to work for. I got a student job and from that point things started to get easier.''
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For Hamdan, aside from the direct networks into Germany companies, the most useful thing about ReDi school was the community that it offered: ''The most important thing in my opinion is that it takes you out of your bubble where you don't know many people in Germany, and may be receiving a lot of rejections and puts you into this community. They help you feel more confident in your applications and what you're doing.''
Now taking part in a graduate programme with Deutsche Telekom, Hamdan credits the school as an important resource in what it offered him to break into the German tech industry. He also notes that the ReDi school is a very valuable resource from the companies' side as well. "There's really a lack of talent of people willing to work in IT, on the other hand you have all these motivated people trying to apply and finding no jobs. The ReDi school is important in linking those two together."
Vivek Sethia is a Cloud Systems Developer at Cloudreach, a Germany-based company, and in his spare time, a mentor and tutor in ReDi's programme. He says that he has found that, aside from teaching tech skills, he finds himself giving advice on various things, such as job application processes.
''When teaching I focused on the tech, but as a mentor I focused on preparing the mentee to fix their CV and cover letter, be confident and how to approach different companies."
He says: ''I know sometimes, it is not only the job application process that could create fear or anxiety but everything surrounding it, for example applying for a Blue Card, getting an apartment in Munich.''
Originally from India, he shares that as an international resident himself, he finds a lot of joy in sharing his advice to people that are new in Germany, and do not necessarily have access to networks otherwise.
"It's a great idea when you don't have any roots in a country. I'm not saying tech school may be for everyone, but it's a good platform for people interested in IT, and the concept of creating networks between companies and people can be applied in different fields."
Tamsin Paternoster is a freelance journalist based in Germany writing for The Local Germany among other publications. Follow her on Twitter.