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BeCode takes on Brussels unemployment with free training

09:15 05/11/2017
With six-month programming courses, BeCode aims to prepare people for jobs in the digital economy and hopes to create a more inclusive society in the process

In Brussels, one out of four young people is unemployed. And yet opportunities abound: The digital economy is good for 12,000 vacancies, and the number is expected to reach 30,000 by 2020.

According to experts, the problem lies not in the lack of jobs, but in the lack of adequate skills. “For us, this is a win-win opportunity,” says Karen Boers, who has co-created a programme that helps the unemployed prepare for the thousands of jobs available.

BeCode provides a free six-month training programme in coding. Boers launched it with Laurent Hublet, an advisor to the federal minister in charge of the digital agenda, Alexander De Croo.

But it aims to do more than just create jobs. Boers was actually inspired to launch the programme following the terrorist attacks in Brussels last year. “If you have a direction in your life, you won’t be lured into doing other things,” she says. BeCode’s ultimate goal is to build a more inclusive society.

Learning by doing

The hardest part, says Boers, was finding people who would get the most out of the programme. To spread the word, she sent out ambassadors into the streets of Brussels to engage people at bars and computer shops and guide them through the application process.

Altogether, 130 people applied, and 80 were selected for a day of speed-dating with BeCode founders and partners from Simplon, a non-profit from France that provides the teaching methodology. Rather than testing applicants’ skills, the team gauged their motivation and willingness to commit to a six-month programme.

“We wanted to see how applicants work in groups,” explains Boers. “Because we don’t only teach them how to code – this skill would quickly become obsolete. Our goal is to train assertive and connected individuals who will keep on learning on their own.” They eventually chose 35 to start the programme.

The training itself is very tangible and practical. “In the first two weeks, students build a website. They also learn coding languages and how to create a web form,” Boers says.

The programme is full time, and since most of the students are job-seekers, they also get to keep their unemployment benefits. Some of the students, Boers adds, are already thinking of launching their own start-up.

Students take the classes at campuses in Anderlecht and the city centre. Ages range from 23 all the way to 60. But only seven of them are women.

“We had a fair amount of female applicants, but some had to withdraw at the last minute because they couldn’t leave their kids at home,” explains Boers. “Next time, we’ll have a solution for this. As founders, we, too, are learning by doing.”

The women who applied for the programme come from all kinds of backgrounds. “They are often in charge of household duties and are looking for a flexible career that can be conducted from home,” Boers says. “Coding skills provide that opportunity.”

New direction

Since the programme is free, BeCode had to look for sponsors. Four partners – Degroof Petercam, 4wings Foundation, Orange and Telenet – readily agreed to cover the costs of two series of courses a year for the next three years.

“For them, this is about corporate social responsibility, close to home and close to their hearts,” says Boers. “They know from experience how difficult it is to find well-trained people, so they can just as well recruit some of our students, who, in turn, will get to repay the favour.”

Boers is also considering other ways for BeCode to generate funding, including small-scale partnerships and training for private companies. “Having our students and employees who need retraining share the same classroom – now that would be a very healthy mix.”

When she’s not running BeCode, Boers acts as a consultant for various other start-ups in Brussels. Despite her busy schedule, she enjoys visiting the classes and chatting with the students in the programme. “With five kids at home, I feel the need for such a school myself.”

Photo: Kristof Vadino

Written by Sibylle Greindl