Abdullah Kareem’s life in Iraq was normal until his father got a letter from terrorists who threatened to kill his entire family. The family escaped to Turkey, and then the U.S., with help from the United Nations.
He arrived in the U.S. as a 15-year-old student who wanted to be a pilot. But his life took a turn while he was visiting the Utah Refugee Education and Training Center and he saw signs for a computer science class being given by engineers at MX, the financial data analytics vendor in Lehi. Kareem took a few classes, where he learned about computer languages and what it’s like to work in a computer science engineering department. The MX engineers chose Kareem and a few other students for MX internships.
Now Kareem, who will soon graduate from high school, would like to major in computer science.
“I hope any student goes through this program, even if they’re not interested in computer science,” he said.
Versions of the program Kareem went through are being held across the country, by fintechs, banks and fintech accelerators. They help companies cope with a tech talent shortage while helping less-advantaged pockets of their communities.
“This is something we’re going to see more and more,” said Brad Leimer, co-founder of the venture capital and fintech advisory firm Unconventional Ventures. “There’s this public-private social contract around re-education and creating opportunities that are good for corporations and communities and for the people that live in those communities, because each needs the other to thrive.”
Marcos Minond, software engineer at MX, heard about the Utah refugee center a few years ago. He noticed there were no programming classes and spoke with a colleague, front-end engineer Ryan Moore, about the possibility of creating some classes to help immigrants prepare for a job.
“We went back to the refugee center and they were all for it,” Minond said. In about six months, they put together a curriculum and started teaching, for free on their own time, focusing mainly on the popular Java programming language.
Many of the students, they’ve found, were studying computer science when something happened in their home country (Syria, Iraq and Somalia in some cases) that forced them to flee. Then they spent several years trying to get permission to settle in a new country.
“You spend four or five years fighting to figure out where you’re going to live your life,” Moore said.
Refugees emerge from the experience with useful skills, Moore and Minond noted.
“They have skills, intelligence and problem-solving abilities that come from taking a horrific solution, staying optimistic and working to better their conditions,” Moore said.
MX has taught 150 young refugees how to code. It’s hired several as interns and has allowed Moore, Minond and others to spend work hours mentoring them. Such programs can help fill a very specific tech talent gap, Moore said.
“Right now, there’s a disconnect between what the industry needs and what many applicants are providing,” he said. “If we can get this model to work, it could help fill a niche that’s currently missing.”
Carolina Fintech Hub
The Carolina Fintech Hub, which launched about a year ago, works with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Ally, BB&T and other local banks to coax fintech companies to come to the Carolinas. It also helps banks looking for talent by teaching disadvantaged people to code.
Local nonprofits such as Black Tech Charlotte and Goodwill will reach out to people who might be interested in the program. Another partner, Jobs for the Future, assesses the applicants, who don’t need to have any coding or technical background. Tech Talent South provides six months of Java training.
The participating banks — Bank of America, Ally and BB&T — will start paying people the equivalent of an annual $30,000 salary on day one of the training (which will be in mid-March). At the end of the six months, the participant starts a full-time job at one of the banks and their salary rises to $55,000.
“If you pass the week-over-week requirements, you don’t have a promise of a job, you have a job,” said Tariq Bokhari, executive director of the Carolina Fintech Hub. (He describes himself as a “fintech nerd and public servant.”) “A lot of these folks are giving up an Uber or waiter job.”
The program participants will also get help with personal needs like child care and transportation. The goal is to train 50 people in this first round; more than a thousand people applied.
The fintech hub hopes to improve upward mobility in the Carolinas and prove there’s homegrown tech talent in the two states.
“Whether there’s a real or perceived lack of tech talent, that came to a head in the Amazon headquarters competition,” Bokhari said. “The fact that we didn’t make it hurt a lot of egos around here.”
Bank of America
Bank of America launched a 2020 Campaign with Code First: Girls in May 2018 (Goldman Sachs is also a campaign partner) that aims to help 20,000 women in the U.K. and Ireland learn to code by 2020. The bank provides financial support and employees’ time to the program, which is open to all women over 18 in the U.K. and Ireland.
“Our commitment to Code First: Girls builds on a strong partnership forged over five years that lets the company’s employees act as volunteer instructors and technology ambassadors,” said Allison Krill, head of EMEA global banking and markets technology at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
The bank hosts eight-week on-site coding courses for young women through the campaign. Many of the bank’s senior female technologists have mentored young women and taught them about the careers available in technology and financial services through the program.
So far, the program is about halfway to its goal and the bank has hired some of the participants.
BofA also partners with a similar group, STEMettes, and hosts interactive weekend coding events such as “How AI Works” and “How Machines Work.” Separately, it offers internships to young high school graduates in partnership with Year Up.
The grow-you-own-talent model appears to be building momentum.
“We’re in a new era of work,” Leimer said. “How do we then take care of people who have already been struggling to build savings and create opportunities for long-term investment and wealth creation that are important to the story of financial narratives? How do we do that in communities that have fewer and fewer opportunities for people to get the right education that matches the jobs of the future?”
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