By Prof. Ayobami Salami
When talking about socio-economic development, one cannot but note the rate of youth unemployment, which has made it a sobering reality that Nigeria’s formal education system is not yet in shape to provide the needed skills in the country. That, in itself, is a major causative factor for the despondent feeling many now hold towards the education sector: a feeling that the system produces many professionals who possess knowledge but are lacking in terms of practical skills to carry out specific tasks.
Laying credence to this is the fact that graduates, in their numbers, are turning towards the acquisition of skills, having found out that their different degrees do not automatically guarantee job placements. Having discovered that being emotional and sulking about diminishing jobs will do no good, many Nigerian graduates now use their heads and hands, as against the old-time reliance on certificates and endless wait for jobs to come. The urgent need to reduce youth unemployment, social exclusion and poverty has put many on the alert and decision-makers are now refocusing their attention on the provision of skills development opportunities that respond to evolving social and economic demands.
At a recent public event, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, apparently overwhelmed by the burdening unemployment challenge, had wondered aloud: “What is government not doing right? What changes are needed in the policies, plans and strategies? What action areas need priority attention? What roles should different stakeholders play and what other options are not being exploited?” He posed more questions: “Why do we employ expatriates for jobs Nigerians can do or why can’t Nigerians do these jobs? Why do we have deficits in housing, water sanitation, food, entertainment facilities, healthcare, and education, among others?How do we break the resilience of high unemployment rate in the country?”
Without any doubt, the questions Ngige threw up are fundamental and, indeed, crucial to unravelling the human development agenda of a lagging nation like ours. To begin with, we must commend the minister for speaking up so courageously and for requesting stakeholders to intervene on a matter that has apparently become very thorny. It is in that spirit I make this contribution, especially from the prism of my obligations as a citizen and a practitioner within the precincts of the tertiary education emporium, touching on at least two key areas.
The first intervention is to reiterate the age-long truism that, failure to plan is an inevitable set-up for failure. One does not have to look too far for a perfect canvass where this holds sway or even truer than Nigeria. It is still befuddling to think that members of the nation’s political elite expect to have a prosperous state without any attendant grand developmental vision. For instance, looking back, one cannot think of any long-term Developmental Plan Nigeria has executed faithfully since the last six decades of independence. While we are quick to frequently compare ourselves with Singapore, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and other emergent economic superpowers as states with similar socio-economic structures, the truth we often fail to acknowledge is our deep-seated disregard and flagrant abuse of basic economic principles.
Only a few years ago, Nigeria gleefully talked and lavishly expended resources on a certain Vision 20:20. I must confess that I was drafted into the team of technocrats that crafted that policy as a member of the Committee on the Environment. That plan was anchored on a pithy projection of the nation joining the list of top 20 economies in the world. This is April 2020; what has become of the Plan? Talk of an exercise in futility!
It is not any coincidence that the leading and most advanced economies of the world are renowned for the quality of their vision. These countries, often prioritising development ahead of warped political considerations, consistently demonstrate fidelity to set developmental goals. This is because these countries understand that only conscientiously conceived and implemented goals launch nations to desirable havens of economic prosperity and abundance, and not mere whimsical and emotional expectations.
The other point of relevance relates to a non-existent national skills development policy. There is an obvious lacuna in the nation’s human resource development quest. As of today, Nigeria lacks a cohesive human capital strategy tied to a clear-cut overall national aspiration. It is the absence of this that has made it possible for the worrisome influx of expatriates into the country who scramble for the jobs many of our citizens are unqualified to undertake. That is also why there is an apparent graduate glut in some sectors of the economy while acute shortage is evidenced in others.
That Nigeria needs a national policy on skill acquisition is not in doubt. With the rate of youth unemployment put at 36.5% for the last quarter of 2018 by the National Bureau of Statistics, it is evidently worrisome that more than one-third of Nigeria’s youths are not economically productive; an indication that there might be even more somber days ahead. And more saddening is the fact that many of the youths are actually unskilled. The sad reality is that unskilled youths are not only financial burdens; but they are also time bombs for any country. The reason is that by virtue of being unskilled, many of them are unemployable. And it is no secret that insurgency, kidnappings and many other vices in Nigeria are perpetrated mostly by unemployed youths. To achieve a sane society, therefore, a major factor is ensuring that youths are skilled.
For those who may want to pose the question, ‘Does Nigeria need to skill her youth?’ The answer is as simple as the question: Yes. Not only is Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) accepted worldwide to be a vehicle for sustainable development and economic growth, it is also the surest way out of Nigeria’s present situation. Nigeria’s case is peculiar in that even many of those who are educated are unskilled! It is exceedingly disturbing to note that so many graduates in Africa’s most populous nation are not trained in any skill or vocation.
While the world is talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Nigeria still exports most of her raw materials and imports finished products, an indication that the industrial sector is not fully in place yet. It is also commonplace in Nigeria to hire and re-train a lot of workers. There is no doubt that if those entering the industry are skilled, companies wouldn’t need to retrain their staff. They would thus have either saved the exorbitant amounts voted for training staff or channelled such into other undertakings. This is because entrepreneurship skills and attributes will go a long way in enhancing the employability prospects of individuals, enhance their productivity and stand them out in any given job.
Of course, there is a relevant correlation between the youth unemployment level and the level of vocational training available. Comparing the situation in Germany, which is a leading light in TVET training, it is quite noticeable that there are plans and policies in place for training the youth. Little wonder, statistics indicate that the percentage of German youths who are neither in school nor in training is about 6.7% as against Nigeria’s 20.4%. Through the model, trainees in Germany spend part of each week at a vocational school and the other part at a company; and, through this, 1.3 million German youths are trained annually. It can thus be inferred that TVET has helped to improve employment in Germany.
In Nigeria, strategies for skill acquisition are laid out but the execution has not yielded desirable results, mainly because there is no policy to guide the execution. Before now, the education system in Nigeria was designed in such a way that technical colleges would feed the polytechnics while secondary schools would feed the universities. That has however gone wrong; no thanks to the unfortunate demonisation of technical colleges. Technical colleges and institutions were erroneously regarded as consolatory institutions for those who were not good enough for the universities and polytechnics; thus, forcing a downward trend in the stock of skill acquisition. What many have failed to realise is that dull students cannot cope with the demanding curriculum of technical education. It has a bit of everything compulsory in standard education and of course entrepreneurship.
To be concluded
Professor Salami is the Vice-Chancellor, First Technical University, Ibadan