B.C. tech sector rallies to train Syrian refugees how to code

Startland to provide refugees with free coding classes, workspace, laptops and smartphones

Kate Armstrong, director of Emily Carr University’s Living Labs, has worked with angel investors, tech startups and educational institutes to commit donations and in-kind support to teach code and web development to refugees | Rob Kruyt

Kate Armstrong recalls feeling helpless last fall as the Syrian refugee crisis unfolded.

There would be 25,000 refugees entering Canada by the end of February, and the director of Emily Carr University of Art and Design’s Living Labs wasn’t convinced they would all crack the code to enter the job market successfully.

But since November, Armstrong has worked with angel investors, tech startups and educational institutes to commit $280,000 in donations and in-kind support to teach code and web development to 100 refugees.

The Startland initiative (stylized as “#Startland”) plans to raise another $150,000 through the FundRazr crowdfunding platform to provide refugees entering the tech workforce with free workspace, laptops and smartphones.

“We’re in desperate need of new coders,” Armstrong said. “It’s sort of a win-win because the technology sector needs new people, and there is a skills gap.”

A 2014 BC Technology Industry Association report found the gross domestic product (GDP) of the province’s tech sector has grown by 12% since 2007.  B.C.’s overall GDP has grown 6% over the same period.

Meanwhile, about 84,000 British Columbians are working in the tech sector, and startups have long lamented a shortage in talent.

Premier Christy Clark announced in mid-January as part of B.C.’s technology strategy that the province would begin phasing in coding to the school curriculum this fall to deepen the tech talent pool. Clark said Victoria would also streamline the B.C. provincial nominee program to bring in specialized tech talent from overseas to fill in the labour market gaps.

But Carla Morales, director of the Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISS), said the Startland initiative stands out because the private sector is taking the reins from the government to find talent shortage solutions.

“That for me is the future of business,” she said, adding that the initiative is the first of its kind.

ISS has partnered with Startland on the initiative to provide it with access to and support for refugees entering B.C.

Armstrong admits it was a necessity because none of the organizers had prior experience working with refugees.

The ISS evaluates labour markets to ensure refugees are being aligned with in-demand jobs, and Morales doesn’t expect that to be an issue for clients trained to code. But applicants to the program could face major language barriers or be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s a very individualized process,” she said. “You might have one client that comes in that has excellence language [skills], that may be interested in code, that may be the age of 21 … and then you may have a client on the other end.”

B.C. is expected to welcome about 3,000 refugees from Syria, but ISS does not have a breakdown of the demographics entering the province.

If B.C.’s intake heavily favours children or the elderly, Startland might be left with few refugees able to join the program.

While the Startland initiative will be open to all refugees no matter their countries of origin, Armstrong said the program would not likely start until late February at the earliest so that Syrian refugees arriving in B.C. would have time to adjust.

In addition to partners such as ISS, the Startland initiative includes Wantoo, Lighthouse Labs, Red Academy, CodeCore Bootcamp and BrainStation.

Armstrong added Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT) and Espresso Capital have also provided seed donations to the initiative.

While 100 refugees will be trained to code initially, Armstrong said Startland will “step that up and get it moving.”