Education and training – Germany

How digital training for refugees is opening doors to employment

Alice Tofts

There are many obstacles facing refugees arriving in Germany. Even if they manage to navigate the country’s asylum system, they must find ways to enter the country’s jobs market. The first barrier for any newcomer to Germany is the language. Then there is knowing what jobs are out there. Finally, there is the question of qualifications. Many refugees arrive with much-needed skills but can struggle to get their abilities recognized by future employers. Formal professional qualifications may not be readily transferable. Others will need to gain the skills necessary to secure any available opportunities. Recognizing these challenges, the ReDI School of Digital Integration has designed a range of initiatives to provide solutions to refugees and other marginalized communities in the country. 

There are currently an estimated 96,000 unfilled jobs in the German IT industry. When Anne Kjær Bathel co-founded ReDI in December 2015, the figure was only half of that, and this gap continues to grow: in the next five or six years, she believes, this unmet demand could double again. Alongside its obvious advantages as a growing job market, Bathel believed that expanding access to the tech industry is crucial to integration. ‘It is hard to think about a job these days that is not to some degree digital,’ she says. ‘In order to be an active citizen in Europe and the world these days, you really need to have digital skills.’ Gaining digital skills allows newcomers to be included in society both professionally and personally. 

 Since the Berlin school opened in February 2016, seven more schools have opened in Munich, North Rhine- Westphalia, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Aarhus, Malmö and one online. ReDI offers courses in web development, software development, analytics, cloud computing, user design computing and marketing. Students also benefit from project-based work to ensure they gain hands-on experience alongside knowledge acquisition. As well as being a school where students gain practical digital skills, ReDI is also a ‘platform to connect the right skills with the right network’. For Bathel it is ‘50 per cent what you know and 50 per cent who you know’. 

One outcome of co-creation is increased representation of female students, from 10 per cent in the first year to 45 per cent in the high-end tech courses in 2022.

Fadi Zaim was once a student himself at ReDI after arriving in Germany from Syria. He knows what it is like to be both a newcomer with a refugee background, equipping himself with the skills needed, as well as to be part of developing and managing a ReDI School on a daily basis. Restoring agency to newcomers, both through digital skills acquisition and through exchange and dialogue, is an important part of supporting those with refugee backgrounds to settle in a new country. It is not unusual for students to stay connected to the school after graduating – like Zaim – and use their experience and skills to help others: around 15 per cent of its volunteer teachers are former students themselves. Gaining skills, experience and a wider social network are essential to being a student at ReDI. 

ReDI’s huge tech network supports this theory, allowing students to meet their tech partners through their programme of events and job fairs. These networking opportunities have in the past led to students gaining interviews, internships and jobs. This close connection between ReDI, their students and professionals working in the tech industry allows students to be up to date with the skills required to join the job market. Students can be matched with a mentor, which, as Zaim points out, allows students to learn ‘from someone who is working in this field, who is really up to date’. 

An important part of ReDI is not only equipping newcomers with the skills required for the tech job market but knowing which skills they need. Asylum and integration laws passed recently in Germany present numerous bureaucratic hurdles and demands to demonstrate integration. How do newcomers navigate these hurdles? Zaim explained how ‘it is really challenging for someone who is new here, to know what are the keys, aside from the language, for how this thing can happen. For example, it took me six months to know how to apply for a certain job. But if someone told me, “Come here, you can attend this workshop,” I would have saved lots of time. It is just a matter of guidance and how to support.’ 

Between the teachers and students, ReDI School consists of 67 nationalities. For Zaim, ‘a high level of respect and understanding for each other is really needed in order to make it inclusive and for building this community and belonging feeling’. He goes on to explain how, ‘everyone is learning. The teachers are learning during the process. I think that is a completely different feeling of learning than having a teacher at the front with a book who will test you at the end that you have learnt what is in the book. It is more about building together.’ 

This sense of building together chimes with ReDI’s focus on co-creation, something Zaim believes is the ‘key to success’. Bathel explained how the idea emerged from her friendship with an Iraqi refugee and how, between them, they gradually expanded by recruiting friends and contacts into the group. ‘We were’, she explains, ‘equal amounts of professional people who had lived longer in Berlin and newcomers. And I think this is really what has created this feeling of ownership and family … Because all the time it is the community that creates the things that the community sees are relevant.’ 

One of the outcomes of co-creation has been the increased representation of female students, from 10 per cent in the first year to 45 per cent in the high-end tech courses in the 2022 spring semester: their aim is to reach 50 per cent female studentship. Through co-creation workshops, ReDI was able to identify what support women needed to attend, introducing a Digital Women Programme that offers digital literacy courses, free childcare on site and weekend lessons to enable more women to participate. 

While refugees continue to struggle with the barriers and inequities of Germany’s labour market, their situation in recent years has nevertheless improved significantly. Whereas less than a fifth (18 per cent) of refugees from the eight main countries of origin were in employment and paying social insurance in 2015, the proportion had risen to around 29 per cent by May 2020. Organizations like ReDI are essential for providing the skills, support and connections to assist their integration into the workforce. ReDI celebrates every time one of its students finds a job on its blog, ‘It’s a Match.’ One student, talking about their new job, reflected how ReDI had ‘given me the opportunity to learn many new things – in class, in workshops and in the mentorship programme. My mentor reinforced the knowledge I had been acquiring by explaining everything I had doubts about and helped me create my CV, my LinkedIn profile and many more.’

Photo: ReDI students celebrating their achievements at the ReDI Munich Demo Day, 2019. Courtesy of ReDI School of Digital Integration