Businesses sponsor childrento learn tech skills – then hire them

For every corporate client turning to one altruistic agency for digital direction, the company trains a young person. Genevieve Roberts reports on a very 21st-century success story
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The Independent Online

From crowdfunding sites raising money for causes around the world to hashtag activism – such as The Independent's #RefugeesWelcome campaign – and viral charity drives (who can forget the ice-bucket challenge?), technology is making it easier than ever for the average Joe or Joanna to do something for someone else. Tech companies have cottoned on to the power of digital altruism, and realise that they can turn a profit and make a difference.

Standing in front of a rapt young audience is Lewie Allen, a product of digital altruism in real life. Allen is teaching coding to a group of 16- to 25-year-olds so that, within an hour, they can build their own websites. The cost of this session to his eager acolytes? Nothing at all.

Allen, 27, is a lead trainer and brand ambassador for Freeformers, a computer-training company with an altruistic twist. Launched two-and-a-half years ago, the firm runs courses for corporate clients including Bloomberg, the Bank of England, Tesco, Argos and the BBC, teaching their employees about all things digital – from learning the basics to coding, recognising cyber security threats and mastering social-media strategy. What makes Freeformers different, is that for every business person who goes on one of its courses, it trains a young person, aged between 16 and 25, for free. So far, Freeformers has taught 1,053 young people this year.

The next raft are being encouraged by Allen today, who became enchanted by coding two- and-a-half years ago, and chats about the subject with passion. "We're learning this for a reason, not just for the sake of it," he tells the group, introducing them to HTML programming language and open-source software. By the end of the session, the group will have each developed an online CV to show to employers.

Half of Freeformers' trainers – including Allen – first went on one of the courses for free, and now they, in turn, teach digital skills to the very businesses that effectively funded their learning. Allen, who has spoken at the European Commission on the future of teaching technology in schools, left his own at the age of 16, a music lover who made tunes on his computer but struggled to find employment. "I left school with three GCSEs, didn't have a job and lived in seven hostels over five years," he says. When he went to an event run by Freeformers, which he heard about through his local youth club, he was inspired by the creativity of technology and began working for the company. "Learning digital skills has opened all sorts of doors," he says.

Emma Cerrone, 38, co-founder of Freeformers, says that, while young people are instinctive consumers of technology and understand connectivity, many are not as comfortable creating. "We're tapping into the 99 per cent who don't think geeky stuff is for them," she says. "Then they find their confidence." Cerrone, whose background was in public relations rather than technology, firmly believes that the digital age "is just another way of being creative".

While children are now learning to code in schools from the age of five, changes to the national curriculum were only put in place a year ago. For those leaving school, skills vary widely and many are intimidated by programming, seeing it as an end in itself. Young people come to Freeformers' events from youth and education charities including The Prince's Trust, the NSPCC, WORLDwrite and Envision. Cerrone believes that the corporations who fund these places will start hiring the young people they train directly, as they recognise their talents. "The corporate interview process needs to change," she says.

Amrit Kaur Lohia, 23, a student at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies, lives in Edmonton, north London, and heard about Freeformers through the youth charity Envision. "There is a massive gap in skills, especially considering how fast the world is changing," she believes. "This makes you look at how young people can change things around them." She has spent her morning developing an app for collecting receipts, which triggers a reminder before the 28-day expiry period lapses for returns, as she finds it frustrating when she realises that she's too late to take her unwanted buys back.

Nyasha Duri, 18, from south London, went to a Freeformers event sponsored by Barclays last November, while studying A levels in French, History and English Literature. "People talk about being creators instead of consumers and I saw this as the first step. I never knew how transformational it would be to my life," she says. "The best bit for me was the Lab session, as that's where my app idea started. It was called Poli and was aimed at getting young people engaged with politics by connecting them directly and instantly to their local MP, as well as to political information in real time."

Duri entered her app for the iDEA Award after being inspired by the Freeformers training day, and was one of 20 finalists. She has spent the summer working on her project – which has evolved into a website rather than an app – and is taking a year out before university to complete it. She has also pitched her idea at Google's Campus London.

Freeformers also aims to change corporate culture and their training, coding, social media, security and prototyping events attract equal numbers of male and female participants. "We lift the hood on digital: so much of it is about confidence and mindset – we are teaching people to learn again," Cerrone says. "Everyone can learn it and no one should be excluded from it."

The company trained the HR department at Barclays, who came up with an app for women taking maternity leave, letting them know what to do to keep in touch. It won a Mumsnet award for helping engage female employees. She says that many corporate clients tell her they do not know how to keep up with all the information available to them. "But it's not about keeping up with it, it's about curating it," she says.

Allen, who has trained FTSE leaders including the CEO of Barclays, as well as hundreds of young people, loves watching people suddenly engage with technology: "It's amazing to see the scales fall from people's eyes as they begin to realise the basics can be learnt pretty easily," he says. And if you're aged between 16 and 25, it can be learnt on – someone else's – corporate dollar. µ