Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Graduate Employment and Employability Challenges in Nigeria

By Olu Akanmu

Being Abridged Text of Presentation Given at the Association of Commonwealth Universities/ British Council Regional Policy Dialogue on Graduate Employability in Africa in Accra, Ghana on the 18th of January, 2011. This paper was also presented at the British Council Global Higher Education Conference in Hong- Kong, on the 12th of March, 2011.

Nigeria has a serious challenge. Many graduates of its higher institutions cannot find work. Despite an average economic growth rate of about seven percent per annum over the last seven years, a good performance by global standards, wage employment is estimated to have declined by about thirty percent according to a recent World Bank Publication titled Putting Nigeria to Work. Nigeria has a serious jobless growth problem. Its strong economic performance over the last decade has not translated to jobs and real life opportunities for its many of its youths. Three out of ten graduates of higher education cannot find work. Being highly educated does not increase the chance of finding a job. Many graduates of higher education who find work are not usually gainfully employed. They are forced to accept marginal jobs that do not use their qualification in sales, agriculture and manual labour according to the British Council sponsored Nigeria-Next Generation Report. For those who are lucky to find jobs, employers are concerned about their skills and fit with their job requirements. Standards have fallen in higher education due to years of poor funding, leading to a growing preference for overseas university education. Nigeria is one of the biggest markets for British Higher Education because many upper- middle class families see it as a way to give their children a head-start in life. This however has serious social equity implications as not more than ten percent of Nigerian families can afford to send their children abroad. There is an increasing correlation between employability of graduates and their social class. If education is bridge to liberating the potential of young people and bridging the social divide by offering everyone a chance to climb the social ladder, higher education in Nigeria may be failing.

Employers want their graduate recruits to be competent technically in their chosen field. They also want them to come of school well equipped with complementary life skills such as problem solving, reflective and critical thinking, interpersonal and teaming skills, effective communication, character, integrity and high level of personal ethics, self esteem, self –discipline, organizing skills and abilities to translate ideas to action. The problem, typical of higher education in many countries is that these life skills are rarely thought as part of higher education curriculum. Yet as soft as they are, they are no less important in making a success out of school as the specific technical skills in a graduate’s chosen field.

There are two critical policy issues to address in putting the Nigerian graduate to work. The first is how to increase the employment generation capacity of the economy, create jobs that will absorb thousands of higher education graduates and reverse the current pattern of Nigeria’s jobless economic growth. It is estimated that Nigeria needs to create twenty-four million jobs over the next ten years to half current unemployment level of thirty percent. The second policy issue to address is how higher education institutions will produce graduates that are employable for the jobs created. How would Nigeria’s higher education institutions improve standards to produce graduates with the minimum sufficient technical skills in their chosen field? This is critical given the historical underfunding of higher education in Nigeria in the last two decades. Nigeria in the 1990s spent significantly more of its resources in the regional peace keeping mission in West Africa known as ECOMOG than on its Universities. Her national spending priorities will need to be re-ordered to allocate more resources to human capacity development which has a high leverage on its social and economic development. In addition, Nigeria’s higher education policy must also address how its institutions will develop the complementary curriculum that addresses the life skill requirements its graduates and prepare them better for their post-graduate life journey? The disconnect between post graduate employment reality and higher education curriculum in specific field and general terms will need to be addressed.

A three way cooperation of the Nigerian government, business and higher education institutions is required to solve these policy issues and put the Nigerian graduate to work. The Nigeria government should adopt a new economic and industrial policy that promotes employment intensive industries with strong potential national competitiveness. Nigeria is typically known for its oil. The oil industry is however more capital intensive than employment intensive. It contributes 40% of Nigeria’s GDP but employs less than 5% of the Nigeria’s population. Industries such as light manufacturing, construction, ICT, wholesale and retail, meat and poultry, oil palm and cocoa along with their value chains have very high employment potential. They need to become the focus of Nigeria’s industrial policy to ensure that its economic growth numbers have real meaning in jobs and life opportunities for Nigeria youths and higher education graduates. The constraints which has held these industries at its infancy such as physical infrastructure particularly power and transport, access to finance, bureaucratic investment environment and dearth of technical skills and manpower to operate these industries on the desired scale will need to be removed. Nigeria needs to develop a more formal technical and vocational education system that will produce graduates with the technical and vocational skills needed to operate the employment intensive industries and its value chains and thereby put more of its graduates and youths to gainful work. Anyone who has ever set up a factory or a construction project in Nigeria knows that they have to import a platoon of Indian, Israeli, Chinese or German technicians to run the project. We are producing too many liberal arts, science and theoretical engineering graduates in our universities whose employability potential is very limited. Technical and vocational education must be given its own prestige and made attractive to young people. Polytechnic higher education must be re-sharpened rather than blur the difference with Universities. We must establish more standardized technical colleges that will produce competent technicians that will work the factories of the new focused employment intensive industries and the small businesses that support them. Business must play a complementary role to government to achieve this. The new Dangote Technical Academy from one of Nigeria’s industrial conglomerate is a shining example.

The historical underfunding which has led to a crisis of standards in higher education must be reversed. Nigeria will be spending about twelve billion dollars to bail out its banks and the financial system, five times the size of the federal budget on education. The government correctly recognizes that the financial system is a public good whose ill-being has serious social consequences and externalities beyond the private interest of its banks’ shareholders. The government needs to apply the same the public good concept to its higher education sector and its funding crisis because there are significant externalities in social benefits in the well-being of the education sector beyond the private interest of individual students and their families.

Putting the Nigerian graduate to gainful work also implies that its higher education institutions should partner with business to develop employability content in higher education curriculum and provide formal life skills training for students. They should use more life case analysis in teaching that brings the real work problems to life. Entrepreneurial studies should be made compulsory because many may find themselves self-employed after school. Formal careers services and employability performance tracking working through a formal Alumni network will also be critical along with the exchange of best practices locally and internationally.

With a declining birth-rate and a relatively young population, Nigeria can potentially reap bountiful demographic dividend through its young people if it educates them and put them to gainful work. Doing otherwise with a mass army of educated, unemployed and unemployable youth population would engender high levels crime and threaten social cohesion. As we approach the elections, the shallowness of economic debate among our political parties on how to tackle our onerous problem of jobless economic growth is lamentable. Civil society must put this issue back in the centre of our polity. Putting the Nigerian graduate and its army of young people to gainful work is a task that must be done.

Olu Akanmu
January, 2010