Vancouver's Lighthouse Labs helps female refugees and immigrants find careers as coders

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      Earlier this month, the Canadian government announced that it will increase the country’s intake of new immigrants. Aiming to admit 350,000 people per year by 2021, federal leaders are hoping international talent will help address a national skills shortage and help grow Canada’s economy.

      Given the country’s rapidly expanding tech industry, the most in-demand workers include software developers and computer programmers. But although many immigrants and refugees have worked in technology in their home country, it can be difficult for new arrivals to step into a new role in a local company. Often individuals have been taught to do their assignments in ways that differ from Canadian norms, and with many employers not having an intimate knowledge of foreign-university credentials, it can be tough to land a good role.

      In 2016, Kate Armstrong, director of Emily Carr’s Living Labs, wanted to find a way to help refugees and new immigrants find jobs in Vancouver’s tech market. After gathering various industry individuals to help those who had just landed in Canada, she convinced some businesses to commit to hiring, funding, or teaching new arrivals. Then, after aligning with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. (ISSofBC), she reached out to people in local organizations to finalize her ambitions. One of them was Jeremy Shaki, cofounder and CEO of coding school Lighthouse Labs.

      “The program is called TechStart,” he tells the Georgia Straight on the line from Toronto. “What it’s been trying to do is to help people who are specifically coming from abroad get into the technology industry and into jobs. The ISSofBC covers 50 percent of the fees, and we offer scholarships worth the other 50 percent. We teach our students languages—JavaScript, Ruby, HTML, CSS, jQuery, these kind of things. And we teach them how to work within a modern developer function. So the tools they need—GitHub and GitFlow, the way they’re meant to collaborate on projects—they do it as if they were working as a developer in Canada.”

      Despite successfully graduating a number of students from the program into Vancouver companies, however, Shaki is unsure whether the initiative will continue into the next year. He notes that ending it would be unfortunate, given the federal government’s increased targets for settling immigrants into tech jobs and the shortage of talent in the industry.

      But although the future of TechStart might be up in the air, ISSofBC and Emily Carr University of Art + Designe have partnered with Lighthouse Labs on another initiative—one that Shaki believes is vital both for helping new arrivals to Canada and for changing the face of the sector. Named TechWomen, the part-time program taught at the school offers female immigrants and refugees the skills to break into the industry.

      “I’m a believer that any underrepresented group needs to be as properly and equally represented in tech as they are in the world,” he says of the initiative’s importance. “In reality, tech is about finding solutions. If there’s only a certain group of people finding solutions, they’re only going to find solutions to their problems. There’s a basic practical aspect [to the need for inclusion], which is that jobs are going to change, and you don’t want one group to have all of those skills. But I think, from a philosophical aspect, if one group is not really capable to function with that technology, or understanding it, or are intimidated by it, or can’t build it in a way that works for them, they are going to struggle to keep up with the evolving world. That creates too big of a divide. And when there are huge socioeconomic divides, sometimes it’s too difficult to catch up.”

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays