I begin this piece by reminiscing about a good old Christian song I used to sing and enjoy back in the days. It goes as follows;
“This mountain shall be removed This mountain shall be removed in Jesus Name This mountain shall be removed By the spirit says the Lord”
Nigeria is a country of mystics and deeply convicted religious folk – I belong to the Jesus people. This is why I see unemployment as a mountain that must be removed. And how so blessed we are to have the man with the Nkpara, Dr. Chris Ngige, at the helm of affairs at the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Productivity. I am optimistic that this rod wielding prophet, sorry, politician, will take us to the promise land after the mystic order of Moses who in times past applied the rod to part the Red Sea, to smite the Mountain that the people of Israel may have to drink and same rod became a snake for the purpose of scaring Pharaoh so as to set the Jews free.
Dr. Ngige is up against the Mt. Kilimanjaro, which is a representation of the unemployment, under employment, sub employment and pseudo employment that Africa’s most populous nation is faced with today. The stats are ugly: the country is dishing out about 1.8 million graduates yearly – mostly half-baked, and rates of school dropouts should double that, and the figure will be tripled by folks who may have attained adulthood without acquiring any form of Education or instruction in Skill to produce or to deal.
Expectancy is high, the ruling party has promised to create three million jobs in a year, which is an indicator that the problem is fully apprehended but a clear roadmap is yet to be seen. This has to be the first assignment for the honorable Minister. The document has to be publicly presented without tape and ribbon cutting and the citizens must buy-in.
Secondly, the Minister of Labour and Productivity should declare an emergency on the issue of skill. Nigeria is a largely incompetent or skill deficient nation, specialized or basic. Assuming that there is a recognized index for skills and competency in the world, Nigeria will easily find itself in the bottom 10 in the world.
To address the skills situation, the Ministry must have a thematic focus of not more than 3 industries in geographically distributed scenarios as well as actively collaborate with middle schools and higher institutions of learning, private and non-profit organizations to develop market place skill acquisition programs. The highest allocation in the ministry’s budget must be devoted to providing funds and grants to credible programs and schemes that promote the aforementioned objective. I don’t want the government involved in direct trainings.
The honorable minister can also draw CSR commitments from top industries to providing quality skills acquisition, incubation and accelerator programs for our citizens. I believe that the best way to solve the issue we are faced with is to keep as many who are out of employment in focused education and training. Remember the axiom about an idle person being the devil’s workshop.
In same vein the Ministry of labour and employment must liaise with the Foreign Affairs Ministry to encourage Skilled Migration and Integration. Nigerian Small Businesses must be supported to bring in Skilled labour from outside our borders through Technical Aid requests from Foreign Missions and more initiatives to encourage skill acquisition and experiential work abroad exchange programs. All these can be facilitated by the government.
Nigeria had such programs in the past; a lot of our today’s engineers were trained in communist Cuba and the Soviet Union while the 70’s Indian immigrants transferred knowledge to a lot of agriculturists in Northern Nigeria. The Egyptian Aquaculture Industry was boosted by the collaboration with the Hellenic Government of Greece through an agreed migrant skills transfer project that involved Egyptians going to work in Greek Aquaculture companies for certain durations and returning to the country to transfer the skills acquired.
Thirdly, I advocate the restructuring of the Labour Ministry. A quick peek of the departmental structure laid out on the Ministry’s website reveal a shocking state of unpreparedness to tackle today’s labour and workforce challenges. The ministry needs an overhaul, it must be business-like in approach and form, a skills audit must be conducted while gaps must be analysed and plugged. Civil servants in the Ministry must see themselves as Analysts instead of Officer II, Managers instead of Level 10s and C-Suite Executives instead of AD, DD and Directors. The ministry must also recruit support staff and consultants to work with all the mission critical departments. I believe that the Blair-Elumelu Fellows programme of the Tony Elumelu Foundation has in time past resourced Government agencies with competent personnel and will be more than willing to assist the Ministry. The least Ngige can do is to put a call across.
Fourthly, Government has to be directly involved in creating a number of jobs immediately or will need to spend more on security. The labour and productivity ministry must work to develop a Small Business Procurement Policy which mandates that certain transactional volumes of Government contracting are executed by companies with small size or low turnover. A good example of that is Governor Elrufai’s Classroom and Uniforms procurement initiative. No single big company should get that entire contract!
The government must also explore job creation or occupation of the unemployed through Social Impact Jobs. I opine that this should be the criteria for the unemployment benefits that government is proposing. Social Impact Jobs can range from Community Vigilance and Security to Environmental Conservancy – Tree planting, Climate Change Awareness to Health and Sanitation Corps as a form of preventive care and to avoid disease outbreak, Mass Literacy initiatives like Financial Education, Evening Classes for market women and rural settlers which will save government of spending in the long term and help to achieve much desired social outcomes in shorter time. There are grant pockets for these kinds of initiatives if the process is properly managed and documented.
Fifthly, the new minister of employment should beware of Start-ups but should rather embrace Scale ups. Start-up evangelists around the world seem to be winning a lot of converts lately and it is just so cool. But startups, the truth is; a lot of them fail. Silicon valley stories inspire us but in Africa, failure is like a death sentence. Scale ups are small to mid-sized companies that are 3 years of more with annual employment growth rate of about 20%. These companies are in need of a lot of support. These companies can be supported with Manpower, Technology and Training, and Financing opportunities to give them competitive advantage and growth opportunities.
The “Igbo model” of entrepreneurship that epitomizes apprenticeship and mentoring works and should be adopted on a grand scale. Nigeria must be a mentoring country as seen in the Igbo enterprise structure and the biggest effort of your ministry will be to ensure that thriving Start-ups are supported to become scale-ups. We have seen ‘spare parts’ businesses with boys mostly recruited from rural villages scale to become a vehicle distribution franchise and now an assembly line. All by themselves. Nollywood remains another model of this Igbo enterprise model and spirit. Scale-ups are more sustainable and are generally adjudged, according to several studies, as having the highest impact on job growth. The reason remains that failing start-ups will eventually send more people into the labour market.
Finally, Nigeria must look forward to the future. The average age of the population is 19.2 years and this shows that the worst years are not here. We must look to the Future and I have two thoughts along this line: One, our elementary education must be more focused on industry and enterprise with full appreciation of vocational and technical skills. The second is that we have to accord highest priority to our women – they are the keys to the future. “If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family (nation), ” the saying goes.
Nigerians are hungry, driven and passionate people. The resources abound everywhere but we have either been blind or incapacitated and there is no better time to act. I trust Ngige, our Nkpara wielding doctor to lead the way. We are behind you, sir. My eyes can see the glory. This mountain must be removed (Singing till it fades)!