Skills not degrees, solution to Nigeria’s unemployment


By Idris Bugaje

Nigeria is indeed the giant of Africa in terms of population, natural resources, etc. When compared with some Asian countries that obtained independence at about the same time as Nigeria, one would expect that we would have similar per capita income (PCI), Global Innovation Index (GII), Human Development Index (HDI), etc.

Unfortunately, something went wrong in either our planning or leadership or both, leading to the present crises of youth unemployment, social discord, insecurity, poverty and other social ills. The main underlying cause of them all being youth unemployment, and therefore the earlier it is resolved the better.

When Nigeria imports every little consumable from China, including tooth brushes and tomato paste; when textiles and other industries were allowed to collapse across the Northern geopolitical zones, what else was expected to happen?

About a decade ago, while a lecturer at the University of Maiduguri, whenever I travelled from Kano to Maiduguri, I tried to count the number of functioning industries from the outskirts of Kano until I reached my destination. There were never any to be found. I could therefore easily see why the Boko Haram (BH) phenomenon had to show its ugly face in 2009 in Borno, and spread across the North-East.

Sustainable solution to insurgency and other manifestations of insecurity must address youth employment through skills development.

The risk of crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Nigerian and other African youths is another indicator of the failure of our educational and industrialization agenda in sub-Saharan Africa.

If these youths had been properly skilled and equipped, they could have gone to Europe with dignity, as I recently discovered in Morocco. This North African country has probably the best skills acquisition program in the continent, and many of their human resources end up in Europe and the Middle East as skilled workers that are welcomed with red-carpets.

With over 300 vocational training centers across the Kingdom, enrolling over 500,000 young Moroccans from the age of 15 years upwards, giving them skills training in about 87 different trades covering building, automobile, electronics, hospitality, aviation, agricultural and other industries, the Moroccan example could indeed be a role model for Nigeria, if we can cast aside our egotism.

Returning to Nigeria after that North African visit, I felt our Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector needed a complete overhaul, entailing probably the closing down of existing structures and the re-inventing them on a new paradigm.

TVET is the key to skills development in Nigeria. Instead of strengthening it we continue to grow the number of our universities from 35 in 1990 to over 170 as at date, leading to an increase in unemployed degree holders.

The curriculums of many of these universities have been dormant with few innovations. Even the entrepreneurship education introduced over a decade ago is done haphazardly without focus or meaningful skills acquired by students.

In spite of the closure of some industries in Nigeria, employment opportunities as a result of existing skill-gaps abound in the country. Take the evolving building industry for example, where we have to import Plaster of Paris (POP) and tiles laying artisans from Togo, Benin and other neighboring French speaking countries.

Or take our Metal Fabrication industry which has not gone beyond the making of gates, doors and windows. Even the oil and gas welding tasks are done by Asians in Port Harcourt. Except for Panteka in Kaduna, where else does one see any serious copy/innovative metal fabrication?

Panteka itself owes its growth to the ingenuity of its owners, and not to the plan or intervention of any government or government agencies.

Historically, employers made the first degree, and in some cases advanced degrees, the gateway to employment and hence parents’ emphasis on university degrees. But times have changed. Rapidly advancing technologies such as, in the ICT world, artificial intelligence, big data, robotics and the advent of quantum computing have created an environment in which much of what is learned in the university becomes outdated in a few short years.

The hard facts and skills of a majority of the academic disciplines are changing as technology rolls through the economy and society, but soft skills such as critical and creative thinking, communication, and leadership do not go out of date and remain in demand by employers.

What industry wants are workers with these soft skills as well as a basic understanding of the current hard skills that will be useful for just a few years before they must be upskilled for a new generation of technology.

This combination of knowledge and skills may not require a degree, and that is where TVET institutions must take the lead to fill the skill gaps. TVET must work closely with industry to produce the skills needed by them.

Mike Colagrossi, a renowned Futurist, suggested that in the near future the focus shall be on skills rather than degrees: “Increasingly there are more and more renowned and prestigious companies that no longer require a degree for work”. Our celebrated auto-designer, Sokoto-born Jailani, did not acquire a degree before he left the shores of Nigeria for the US. He had only a HND from the Federal Polytechnic of Kauran Namoda, and in the US no one asked for his degrees or certificates; rather, they vetted his ability to design motor cars. In other words, only his skills mattered!

Recent published data indicated that the U.S. Labor Department is expecting that by the end of 2019, the US economy will be facing shortfalls of more than two million skilled workers.

Many corporations are already feeling the pinch. For these openings they are no longer looking for white-collar or blue-collar workers, but instead “new-collar” workers, defined as “individuals who develop the technical and soft skills needed to work in technology jobs through non-traditional education paths. These workers do not have a four-year degree from the University”.

Instead, the new-collar worker is trained through vocational schools, polytechnics, software boot camps, technical certification programs, and on-the job apprenticeships and internships.

While this shift in employment requisites develops, globally there is decline in university enrollment, except of course in Nigeria where we generally go against the tide.

China recently converted 600 Universities to TVET Institutions. In the near future, degrees will increasingly become optional. What shall be needed will be soft skills in creative and critical thinking, communication, and leadership; and along with these, hard skills in one’s chosen field.

This will put one ahead of the curve in technological implementation as well as in emerging practices and technologies, and will cultivate in students a flexibility in the application of their knowledge to new environments.

According to a recent study by Deloitte Research in the USA, we should start saying goodbye to the typical “Education” section on the Curriculum Vitae (CV) and replace it with a “Skills” section.

“In a tightening labor market,” the study observed, “smart employers should carefully catalog the skills required for the occupations they hire and screen for those skills rather than accepting a bachelor’s degree as a proxy for them.” To prove they have the right skills for any given role in the future, workers will need a new kind of resume or CV––one that includes more specific demonstrations of their abilities in specific skills.
To be clear, advocating for a skills-centered system does not necessarily imply the suggestion that theoretical learning isn’t essential. Rather, the idea is that even more lifelong learning is needed as automation and other technological advances render our skills obsolete within a short time cycle. Having only a degree is not sufficient to land and hold a job anymore. Soft and hard skills must be allowed to take center stage in our educational system and the TVET sector must be revitalized for this to happen so that even degree holders will get admitted into polytechnics to acquire useful skills.

Nigeria therefore ought to address the challenges of skills development among youths through the following very pragmatic measures:
• Governments should invest more into TVET for skills acquisition rather than promoting mainly university degrees in our educational system;
• Review of current Entrepreneurship Education curriculum in tertiary schools is necessary to make it more functional and to extend it to the Secondary School level of education;
• The introduction of apprenticeship training under the new National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF) across the country for the informal skills sector as well as our traditional inherited skills. Kaduna Polytechnic is currently trying to train its NSQF Assessors with NBTE in order that it may use that platform for its Flagship Project on Panteka Development and Upgrade. Stakeholders are invited to support this flagship.
• Establishment of a National Skills Fund. The Industrial Training Fund (ITF) and the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) may have outlived their usefulness. These agencies are now dormant and are now ill-prepared to meet the challenges of the current emerging Skills Economy of the new Millennium. They should therefore be merged or harmonized into a new platform on a new paradigm for skills development, to be known as National Skills Fund (NSF) and modelled along the Moroccan OFPTT.
• Establishment of Entrepreneurship Development Bank to fund small scale entrepreneurs at very low interest rates for Skill Hubs Development and upgrade; such as the Panteka Fabrication Hub and others in the different skills sectors. The Malaysian Enterprise Development Bank is a good model to adopt and adapt here.
These measures are surely the pathways to make Nigeria secure and to defeat insurgency and insecurity by giving young people the necessary modern skills to seek employment at home or abroad, with dignity, and put the country on the path of sustainable development.