“Skills, not degrees are the solution to Nigeria’s perennial unemployment problem,” argues Idris Bugaje (email@example.com), Professor of Chemical Engineering and Rector, Kaduna Polytechnic, and long-time reader of this Column. If there is anyone who should know the primacy of skills over degrees, it is Prof. Bugaje. He lectured at degree-awarding universities (ABU, Maiduguri, Malaya, Johannesburg), and also taught and researched at skills-imparting institutions (Rector Federal Polytechnic Nasarawa, DG National Research Institute for Chemical Technology and now Kaduna Polytechnic). He has seen both sides of the education ‘coin’. He is our Guest Writer today:
Nigeria is indeed the giant of Africa in terms of population and natural resources, and when compared with some Asian countries that obtained independence at about the same time, 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 underlying cause of all being youth unemployment. Therefore, the earlier it is resolved the better. When Nigeria imports every little consumable, from toothbrushes to tomato paste; when textiles and other industries were allowed to collapse, what else was expected? Boko Haram and banditry are the predictable outcomes.
The risk of crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Nigerian and other African youths is another indicator of the failure of our educational and industrialisation 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 programme in the continent, and many of their human resources end up in Europe and the Middle East as skilled workers, welcomed with red carpets. With over 300 vocational training centres across the Kingdom, enrolling over 500,000 young Moroccans, giving them skills training in about 87 different trades covering building, automobile, electronics, hospitality, aviation, agricultural and others, the Moroccan example could indeed be a role model for Nigeria. That programme is run by an agency named OFPPT, a French acronym for ‘Office of Vocational Training and Work Promotion’ (www.ofppt.ma). 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 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 today, leading to an increase in unemployed degree holders. The curricula 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 large number of unemployed youths, there exist some skill-gaps in Nigeria. Take the evolving building industry for example, where we have to import Plaster of Paris (POP) and tile-laying artisans from Togo, Benin and other neighbouring 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 oil cities such as Port Harcourt. Except for Panteka in Kaduna, where else does one see any serious 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.
The existing skills gaps globally are generally not university degree related. Mike Colagrossi, a renowned Futurist, suggested that shortly 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 and now DG of Automotive Council, Sokoto-born Jelani Aliyu, did not acquire a degree before he left the shores of Nigeria for the US; he had an HND from the Federal Polytechnic Kaura Namoda; 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!
While this shift in employment requisites develops, globally there is a decline in university enrollment, except of course in Nigeria, where we generally go against the tide. China recently converted 600 Universities to TVET Institutions. This was because the Chinese economy was expanding and required millions of new skilled workers annually to sustain its growth.
Nigeria must address the challenges of skills development among youths through these pragmatic measures: Government should invest more into TVET for skills acquisition rather than promoting mainly university degrees in our educational system; The takeoff of the apprenticeship training programme under the new National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF) across the country for the informal skills sector (such as Panteka) as well as our traditionally inherited skills, should be expedited and the relevant skills councils established. In this respect, Kaduna Polytechnic has made Panteka Upgrade its flagship project and awaits funding from stakeholders.
Then there is need to establish the National Skills Fund (NSF). The Industrial Training Fund and the National Directorate of Employment may have outlived their usefulness. These two agencies are now dormant and are ill-prepared to meet the challenges of the current emerging Skills Economy of the new millennium. They should therefore be merged or harmonised into a new platform on a new paradigm for skills development, to be known as National Skills Fund and modelled along the Moroccan OFPPT.
Then the 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 Bank of Industry seems overwhelmed. ‘Trader-Money’ appears to be a politically-tainted exercise and the funds being thrown out, running into hundreds of billions of Naira, will better be harnessed to establish this bank to be used strictly for funding micro and small enterprises. The Malaysian Enterprise Development Bank is a good model to adopt 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.