How asylum seekers could help ease Finland’s tech skills shortage

Problem one: Finland’s otherwise flourishing startup scene has a chronic shortage of developers.

Problem two: the 32,000-plus asylum seekers who arrived in the Nordic country last year – many young, highly educated and computer literate – face waiting for years before they land a job.

“Essentially, we just thought: there is a way to at least start addressing these issues,” said Niklas Lahti, the chief executive of Helsinki-based web services company Nord Software. “We can teach refugees coding so they can become software engineers.”

This month the first three graduates of Integrify, the developer programme for asylum seekers that Lahti and his friend Daniel Rahman, boss of recruitment company TalentConnect, launched in April, started internships with leading Finnish tech companies.

The two are working on a second, expanded programme to train up to 200 refugees as developers, and hope to place them with companies across Europe – starting with Sweden, where “finding developers is almost impossible, harder even than Finland”, according to Lahti.

The starting point, he said, was that “integration just takes way too long. You have lots of young, qualified, motivated people sitting doing nothing. The registration process takes for ever; they’re supposed to learn Finnish before they get a job. While in tech at least, all you really need is English.”

Even once their paperwork is in order, many asylum seekers can wait up to five years to find employment, Rahman said – and when they do, “very highly educated professionals can easily find themselves in really low-skilled jobs”.

Life – and the inhospitable Nordic climate – has proved so frustrating for some newly arrived asylum seekers in Finland that officials said this year they expected up to 5,000 to cancel their applications and return home.

Officials in Helsinki said in February that some 4,000 refugees, nearly 80% of them Iraqi, had already asked for help to leave.

Once their project was fleshed out late last year, Rahman and Lahti toured refugee reception centres to present it, choosing about 20 candidates from 700 refugees who expressed an interest.

With the Finnish tech sector struggling to fill about 5,000 vacancies, the pair had no difficulty recruiting 12 software houses and web services companies as potential employers. They rented a large flat in central Helsinki to accommodate the successful students, and hired an experienced engineer to do the teaching.

Eight weeks into the course, three of the first five trainees – from Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Syria – are in internships, with the remaining two waiting to hear back after interviews.

Eyas Taha, 22, is one of the group. He fled his native Iraq after the family home was blown up three times and by early 2015 had found a job with a web-based food delivery startup in Jordan, in customer care and tech support. Then his father was killed in a terror attack, and he realised he could never return to Baghdad.

“I decided to go to Europe on my own,” he said. Taha took a boat from Egypt to Sicily – “three hundred people, eight days at sea” – and made his way through France, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark to Finland, arriving in last August.

“I knew Finland was a good country, humane,” he said. “And great for education. The only downside was the weather: in Baghdad it can be 50C in summer, in Finland in winter it can be -36C. That’s a shock.”

Taha spent six months in one reception centre and two in another before meeting Rahman and Lahti. “Now, instead of doing nothing I am learning programming languages, eight hours a day. I knew nothing, I had no coding background. But it’s an amazing opportunity.”

Taha has had two job interviews and is awaiting recalls. “This course is just a great shortcut, like a two or three-year shortcut to a proper life,” he said. “It takes a year to get a residence permit, maybe two more to learn Finnish and get a cleaning job.”

Mostly, though, “it means for us, people who have left behind our homes, our countries, our jobs, our educations, our lives – people who have nothing – it means we can actually start to make something new. It’s precious.”

Nizar Rahme, 26, another graduate of the scheme, arrived in Finland three months ago after fleeing Damascus with his wife, Lydia, when her parents’ home was destroyed in a bomb attack in December last year.

A qualified architect who was also working as an animator and game developer in Syria, Nizar came via Russia, hoping initially “just to continue studying, hopefully information systems. So this was an amazing opportunity.”

He is now a junior developer at Nord Software, with a path to a full-time – and fully paid – job. “My life has been … transformed,” he said. “Three months ago I was not a part of society. I was at the reception centre, unable to do anything. Depressed. Now I am learning, working … Integrating. Back in the world.”

The project, Rahman said, is “making integration happen. It’s win-win for everyone. For society, because these jobs need doing, and because the faster asylum seekers integrate and contribute, the better for everyone. And for refugees, because they can actually start building the new lives they crossed Europe to make for themselves.”

This piece is part of our Half-full series. If you have suggestions of stories, trends, innovations and people that you’d like to see included in this series please share them in the form below.

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