It’s a Match: Reskilling refugees to meet Germany’s growing IT needs

Interview with Anne Kjær Bathel, CEO and co-founder ReDI School of Digital Integration

In the midst of a crisis, the ReDI School of Digital Integration found an opportunity. Established during Germany’s “refugee crisis” six years ago, the School brings together IT professionals to teach coding and basic computer skills to refugees and migrants. Over the years, the ReDI School’s business model has proven successful: 75% of graduates from the ReDI Digital Career Program now have paid jobs, mostly in the tech industry. The model is expanding rapidly: following its success in Berlin, the ReDI School now operates four additional schools and an online cyberspace in Germany, as well as several schools across Denmark, Sweden and Ethiopia.

How and why did you start the ReDI School of Digital Integration?

In the middle of the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015 I was visiting a refugee camp in Berlin. Here I met Muhammad, who was in his mid-20s and had a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University in Baghdad. He was eager to get to work – but afraid that he was losing his coding skills because he did not have a laptop. Coding develops so fast, and the saying goes “If you don’t use it – you lose it”. On the other side – already back then – there were 42 000 available jobs in the German IT industry. Today, there are 96 000! The German industry is losing out on billions of euros every year due to lack of access to IT talent. They even pay to recruit senior IT talent from around the world to come to Germany. So why not train those who are already in Germany?

ReDI School was born as a win-win-win situation. Good for refugees getting into jobs faster. Good for German companies getting access to a diverse talent pool. Good for Germany turning beneficiaries of social benefits into taxpayers, faster and cheaper than existing initiatives.

One of the main problems we see when working with refugees or other vulnerable groups is that it is often not easy to reach those who would benefit the most from education and training. What is ReDI’s outreach approach to its target group?

Co-creation is the key to ReDI’s success! From day one, we have had the mantra “Stop talking about refugees – Start talking with refugees”. In the first meeting, it was Muhammad and myself. In our second meeting, we both brought two friends. Then we were six. Next time, they brought their friends. In this way, we had significant growth both on the side of locals, as well as on the side of newcomers. This integration at eye-level and participatory development of our courses means that our students feel a high degree of ownership in the school and the courses. This results in 70% of our new students saying that they were recommended to join ReDI School by friends or family (aka our former students). Currently we have around double the amount of applicants for our courses as we have seats in the program. Reaching our students is not really a challenge – our challenge is funding so we can provide more courses.

The demand for coding and programming courses offered by ReDI School is high. How does this affect scalability?  What are the bottlenecks you face to make courses available to a larger group, and how do you overcome them?

Bureaucracy is a real bottleneck for us. Our unique selling point is actually also our biggest challenge! ReDI School works with 500+ volunteer teachers and mentors coming from 180+ companies within the IT and start-up industry. The IT experts ensure that what is taught is state-of-the-art in the tech industry. Furthermore, the IT experts function as door openers for students to get a foot in the door to companies. The volunteer teachers know exactly which students have high motivation and potenital, making it is easy for them to introduce their students to the HR departments in their companies. This is one of the reasons why 75% of ReDI School alumni from our Digital Career Program are now in paid jobs. The majority of those, working directly in the tech industry!

But . . . to receive job centre vocational vouchers in Germany* you need to have certified, paid teachers, full-time courses, Monday-Friday, within working hours. This approach is particularly flawed when dealing with the tech industry! The ReDI School’s user-centred model working with industry volunteers teaching evening – and weekend courses – works faster and cheaper! We have six years of evidence to show this.

What are some more general lessons you learnt over the past years that you would like to pass on to others who want to start similar programmes in their own communities?

Look for partners inside the system to help you navigate through the bureaucracy and find sustainable funding. Four years ago, the Municipality of Munich asked ReDI School to open a new school there with their support. We were able to set up an impact-driven partnership model, where the municipality pays for five full-time ReDI staff. In return, ReDI needs to teach at least 100 migrants per year. The municipality’s support gives ReDI a stable platform to work from, and thus we can set up additional partnerships with companies and foundations to further support our shared mission of job market integration. Currently we are teaching 450+ students per year in Munich. The municipality gets four times more integration for their money! This is a model I would love to scale to municipalities around the world!

Anne Kjær Bathel, along with other exciting innovators, will take part in the panel discussion “Promoting inclusion through skills policies: What works locally?” during OECD Local Skills Week (15-17 February). To learn more and join us, please visit the OECD Local Skills Week website.

The new OECD report Future-Proofing Adult Learning in Berlin, Germany  also provides further examples of how Berlin is preparing and improving its adult learning system to adapt to the rapidly changing demand for skills.

*A Bildungsgutschein is an education voucher provided by the Agentur für Arbeit (Federal Employment Agency) that allows people to join an educational programme and have (some of the) costs paid through government fund.

Anne Kjær Bathel
CEO at ReDI School | Website

Anne is CEO and co-founder ReDI School of Digital Integration. She is a 2006 graduate from KaosPilot in Denmark, a hybrid of a business and a design school. From 2006-2009, she worked as a corporate social responsibility consultant. In that capacity, she developed and implemented Samsung Electronics’ award-winning corporate social responsibility strategy for Scandinavia. In July 2010, Anne moved to Japan, where she spent 2 years researching open social innovation and received the prestigious Rotary Peace Fellowship. She wrote her master thesis in Silicon Valley with OpenIDEO. In 2012, she moved to Berlin to set up the Berlin Peace Innovation Lab, which is associated with Stanford University. The lab focuses on how technology is facilitating emerging and measurable social change toward global peace. In 2015, in response to the refugee crises, Anne co-founded ReDI School of Digital Integration, a vocational training program teaching programming and tech skills to refugees and marginalised people. ReDI is currently teaching 2000+ adults and kids per year. 65% of these are women and girls.
Anne was recognised by Edition F as one of "25 Women" revolutionising German industry and by Handelsblatt as "Mutmacher of the Year"(2018). She was awarded Best Female Social Entrepreneur of the year in Germany 2020 and Ashoka Fellow in 2021.