Experimental programme tackles youth unemployment through coding


Twenty-year-old Christopher, with his big head of hair and mischievous look, has all the traits of an autodidact. At age 11, he started to learn computer code online.

“It’s a real passion,” he says.

But four years later, like so many others, Christopher left school to study, without much enthusiasm, for a painting diploma at a vocational training college. “I dropped out of school even though I had potential, and, on top of that, to do vocational training that I didn’t like at all. Here, I feel good for the first time. I wake up in the morning feeling happy.”

Just a few weeks earlier, the young man started the first year of Simplon Mars, an experimental programme that should provide computer code training to 24 young people, aged between 18 and 30, from the northern districts of Marseille, where youth unemployment is as high as 40 per cent.

The project, launched by the prestigious engineering school Centrale de Marseille in partnership with Simplon.co, a social enterprise for programmers based in the Paris region, is aimed at giving a second chance to young people who have been left by the wayside.

“Youth unemployment is a major problem. So we wanted to create suitable training and to reinvent the learning process for people in need,” explains Mathilde Chaboche, coordinator of the Societal Lab at this school in the heart of the northern district.

For the first time, the school is offering young people five months training, at an estimated cost of €4000 per student, totally free of charge, followed by a work placement of six months to a year.

Many of the students, like Christopher, were unemployed or had dropped out of school early before joining the course.

Only three of the students on the course have higher education diplomas and half of them stopped at Baccalaureate level.

Selection is based on three criteria: difficulty entering the labour market, an aptitude for computing and, above all, motivation.

“These young people’s experience of the world had left them feeling demeaned or that life was an ordeal. We show them that they have the capacity to meet with companies, to apply for jobs and to create,” says Guillaume Quiquerez, director of the Societal Lab.


“For me, code was a closed circle”

That day, the students, arranged in a circle with laptops in hand, try to understand how to translate a tennis match into HTML language.

Small groups form around the trainer. The students learn from their mistakes, contribute their analysis and assist other classmates who are struggling.

“For me, code was a closed circle. If someone had told me a few years ago that the engineering school would be behind us I would never have believed it,” says 23-year-old Ilies, who left school with a vocational baccalaureate in accounting.

Christopher adds: “What I like about it here is that they guide you towards a solution without giving you it. I like this way of teaching because we learn more by making mistakes.”

But the school realises that having the skills is not enough to land a job. Having a network is equally important.

Convinced that the students will find work when they leave, the Lab is organising “After Work” events on a monthly basis, attended by entrepreneurs and representatives from innovative SMEs. For the students, it’s an opportunity to come into contact with a world they are totally unfamiliar with, and for the companies it’s an opportunity to spot future talents.

The sector is, in fact, pitifully short of skilled professionals.

“Companies are looking for ever greater numbers of skilled IT professionals, especially developers, but the volume of candidates is not rising at the same rate,” regrets Marie-Odile Charaudeau, who heads Aproged, an association grouping IT professionals.

At the same time, although the sector is seen as a source of job opportunities, according to Aproged, it still only accounts for 5.5 per cent of national income.

“France only has a mid-table position relative to other developed countries,” remarks Charaudeau.

“Most French companies recognise the strategic importance of data but are not yet conscious of the quantities and what they can do with it.”

Although digital technology, she points out, is ultimately better at creating wealth than employment.

Indeed, 42 per cent of jobs are estimated to be highly prone to automation as a result of the digitalisation of the economy, according to a study by consultancy firm Roland Berger.

On the plus side, however, according to Aproged, digital transformation could also boost job creation prospects.


This article has been translated from French.