OPINION: Youth Unemployment: Daunting Challenges and Unliimited Possibilities - Bolaji Abdullahi

Date: 2016-12-30

Former Minister of Sports and Youth Development, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, delivered the paper below at the annual lecture and dinner of Club Two-Seven Ilorin, 26th December, 2016.

This is certainly not a great time to be a parent. You give birth to a child; you spend a lot of money to send the child through primary education, you pay through expensive secondary schools, you pay through the university, you find him or her a place you think is safe or has prospects to serve the NYSC, while serving you continue to augment the allowance; then after service, you either pay for another degree or you begin to look for someone who knows someone to help with a job. While the search continues, you continue to pay allowances, including recharge cards for the child’s phone. Most probably, you pay for the child to get married.

Meanwhile, nine months after, you would probably have to pay for the naming ceremony, so that the family name would not be brought into disrepute. And, two years later, if he is yet to find a job, you would have to start paying the grandchild’s school fees so that the third generation of your family does not end up where your own parents most likely started out, as illiterates, in a world where education and enlightenment has become quite literally, a matter of life and death. In a very basic sense therefore, there is very little hope of retiring from fatherhood or motherhood even after retiring from service.

This indeed is a tough time to be a parent. We have found ourselves in an unnatural situation, where parents got better education than their children. The public schools that we all attended have become sad relics of the institutions that shaped our minds and prepared us for all our wonderful careers and the lives we have lived. In the course of my work, I have encountered children completing primary education who were unable to write their own names. I have seen children writing WASC examination who were unable to read the question papers. I have also seen university graduates who could not communicate simple ideas in English language. And you hear stupid arguments like ‘English is not my language’. After all, the Chinese did not become great by speaking English. Quite true. But if you went to school in Nigeria, you were presumed to have spent 20 years receiving knowledge and ideas in that very language. So, how did you do it?

In 1999, we introduced the Universal Basic Education, which made the first nine years of education free and compulsory in Nigeria. With this initiative, we have brought more children into the schools in 17 years than we have done at any other time in our history. Yes, we still have more than 10 million children out of school, but compared to pre-UBE era, no doubt that figure represents a remarkable progress in enrolment. However, even with the best outcome, no nation can grow its economy on the strength of its basic education alone. However, the challenge of our education system is no longer about getting children into schools. We need to ask a fundamental question. What should be the purpose of education in our country? In other words, when we put children in school, what should we expect them to be able to do?

In the past, the mere fact of attending a school provided a clear pathway out of poverty and up the social ladder regardless of the circumstances of your birth. This is no longer the case. Chances that any child would acquire any real education now depend on the financial situation of the parents. In other words, if you are poor, your children are unlikely to get educated, they therefore would most likely end up poor and their children and their children’s children and so on. The production of inter-generational poverty that we see today would most likely be the worst social crisis that the next generation of Nigerians would face. In truly functional terms, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between children who have gone to school and those who have not. Perhaps, the only difference is that those who have gone to school are now armed with what I call ‘certificates of entitlements’, which they believe should provide them with jobs, even though they hardly have any value to offer to any prospective employer, apart from this piece of paper, this certificate.

Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi

I need to emphasise that in the context of the collapse of public education, our failing youths are not essentially the culprits. Rather, they are victims of a system that has failed them, and to which the elite class has largely responded to by extracting their own children from the sinking ship. However, what we have done, as I noted earlier, is to plant the seed for a future of crisis for our children whom we have given education because we could afford it. We have behaved in a manner contrary to what enlightened self-interest would recommend.

As we have repeatedly noted, Nigeria has some of the largest youth population in the world, with an estimated 68 million of our citizens below 35. In other words, if our youth population alone were to be formed into a new country, they would be bigger than several West African countries combined. This huge demographic bulge is ordinarily seen as a great asset with potential to yield massive economic dividends. For a start, that is a great labour force. Anyone looking to set up business in our country would look at that figure and say, ‘waow, I would never lack people to work for me’. Anyone wanting to sell things would also look at our youth population figures and what they see is a mouth-watering market. However, behind the glittering numbers, hides the grim reality of what Nigeria’s massive youth population truly represents.

A 2011 report found that majority of our youth population, up to 80 per cent had not gone beyond secondary education. It is not difficult to believe this figure, if we bear in mind the sad state of our public primary education and the often neglected tragedy represented by the fact that more than 70 percent of our children who have sat for WAEC or NECO examination year on year have failed to achieve the minimum requirement to progress to a higher education. Therefore, even the huge challenge of graduate unemployment pales into relative insignificance, when it is placed in the context of overall youth unemployment, currently estimated at around 70 per cent.

After the rebasing of 2014, our GDP rose from USD 270 billion to USD 510 billion, making our economy the largest on the African continent and 26th in the world. The debate that followed that exercise was whether this economic growth has translated into any real improvements in the quality of lives of Nigerians. The conclusion was that the economy might have grown, but it has also left majority of Nigerians behind and in poverty; hence the paradox of rich country, poor people.

For someone whose training and career is rooted in development, I believed at the time that the measurement of our economic growth must go beyond the triumphalism of overtaking South Africa, and must focus on making economic growth work for the people, thereby bringing the question of inequality back into the mainstream of economic conversation. As Joseph Stiglitz argued, GDP is no longer sufficient as a measurement of economic growth. If the economy provides for rich people to fly their private jets, it must also provide for the poor majority to travel to their villages. If the rich are able to carry their designer bags; the poor should have food in their polybags. The Holy Prophet of Islam said no society can survive where few are very rich and the majority are desperately poor. The need to close the gap in inequality is therefore the fundamental philosophy behind Islam’s preoccupation with wealth distribution, whether in form of zakat or sadaka. The practice of empowerment that we have seen in the political arena in recent times is good, but the tokenism must be backed by a fundamental rethinking of the national economy in a way that provides real opportunities for people to participate actively in available economic opportunities.

The current economic recession has brought back into the front burner the need for us to diversify our economy. But the Nigerian economy is already diversified. The rebasing of 2014 mentioned earlier indicated that the service industry actually contributes 51% of our GDP, leaving oil and gas in a distant fourth place at 15%, after industry at 26% and agriculture at 22%. Then you have new entrants like telecommunications at 8.7% and entertainment at 1.42%. The problem therefore is not that our economy is not diversified. The problem is that we have not been able to develop other sectors to the level that they can be veritable foreign exchange earners for Nigeria. Majority of our people, especially the youth and not sufficiently empowered to participate and take advantage of the opportunities that abound in our economy. In other words, the economy has grown but it has left Nigerians behind. The optimism communicated in the 2017 budget is anchored on the recognition that despite the current difficulties, the fundamentals of our economy are still quite strong, and if we make the right choices, take the right actions and say the right things, we should be able to climb out of recession relatively quick.

However, as noted earlier, even if we are able to bring our economy back on track, we must begin to enforce the fundamental changes required for us to play our massive youth population as demographic advantage rather than the potential time bomb that they currently represent. Everyone knows that there are no surer paths to anarchy than a huge population of youths without employment. The devil, as they say, is also a good employer of youth labour. We either provide jobs for our youths, or Mr. Devil would.

A 2011 youth employment and productivity report identified five core drivers of our economy that hold immense potentials for youth employment and productivity. These are agriculture, ICT, construction, entertainment, and sports. However, the opportunities that abound in these sectors would not be served on a platter of gold. We must design and implement appropriate strategies that targets youth employment as its main focus, based on entrepreneurship and skills development. The current efforts are too unfocussed, too haphazard and too little to affect the problem in any significant way.

The general consensus is that agriculture still provides the best employment opportunities for majority of our people. However, the approaches over the years have focussed quite basically on increasing production. Yes, production remains a challenge especially with our farmers still locked in traditional practices that exert too much labour and yield too little. However, it appears to me that the fundamental challenge with our agriculture sector is our failure to develop the market in a way that it continuously drives production. After all, what is the sense in production if it would not translate into more money in the pocket of the farmer?

Perhaps, the strongest illustration of this point was the Federal Government cassava initiative a couple of years ago. The President asked people to plant cassava, which he said would henceforth form a required component of our flour, not to talk of other by-products. Nigerians answered the clarion call and we went into an orgy of cassava planting. Retired people saw an opportunity to get active again and some immediately deployed their gratuities to plant cassava. I don’t need to remind you how it all ended. What happened with the cassava debacle was only emblematic of our overall failing in the agriculture sector. We have talked so much about value addition and value chains, but we have remained chained to the old approaches. For example, we cannot continue to rely on rain-fed farming and expect that agriculture would be an attractive venture for our youths, because at best, such employment would only be seasonal. How many of our young people would plant maize, harvest it, carry it to an open market and stand by it until he finds buyers? What skills have we given them in processing, in haulage and handling? Where is the extension support staff? What about packaging and branding? Asking our youth to go into farming without changing the fundamentals to make it compatible with their aspiration would remain a mere exercise in advocacy.

Some countries like Ghana, with pine apple and cocoa, Ethiopia, with coffee, and Kenya with tea, have shown the way in exploring markets beyond their boundaries by taking the necessary actions that truly position agriculture as a real opportunity sector for their people. There is no shame in the relearning from them the game that we played so well in the early years of our independence. People speak with nostalgia about the need to bring back the groundnut pyramids. But you don’t need any pyramids in the 2016. If you want to see pyramids, you may take a short trip to Egypt. What we need is a nationally coordinated framework for translating groundnuts into real opportunities for our young people, focussing, yes, on production, but more importantly on value addition and crucially market opportunities. How can a tomato industry in Nigeria shut down because there are no tomatoes of the right grade to feed the industry!

One of the sub-sectors that contributed to the fantastic growth of the service industry as the dominant contributor to our GDP is the real estate sector. We have seen remarkable private sector led investments is these areas in recent years as housing estates sprang up across our cities. However, the question remains, how much of this development has translated into real job opportunities for our youth? How can a country that has an estimated 35 million young people without jobs still be importing tilers, and plumbers and bricklayers and electricians and other related skills from other West African countries? The answer is simple, our youths do not have the skills, the humility and the discipline that are required to produce top quality work that would appeal to the eye and give comfort to the mind of prospective buyers of the properties. Unfortunately, it is an open market, labour, like capital, would move wherever the right incentives exist.

I have dwelt here on the need to create the right markets. However, while we need to create the markets, we must continue to return to the issue of skills. And in thinking about markets, we must look beyond our boundaries. It is therefore about time that our foreign policy is driven principally by our economic interests. A couple of years ago, our soldiers were sent into Liberia and Sierra Leone. They died in their thousands and we spent our money in billions. Yet, after we have helped to bring stability to those countries, we simply walked away. We did not partake in the huge economic opportunities provided by the reconstruction efforts. Our contractors got nothing, our businesses got nothing, our youths got nothing. We got nothing. Now we are in Darfur. What is in it for us? Americans would not do that. France would not do that. In fact, it is doubtful if any country, apart from Nigeria would do that.

However, even if we had been able to take advantage of those opportunities, do our youths have the required skills to take on the jobs that such opportunities provide? The answer is largely no. One would therefore not fail to wonder why we have not answered the fundamental questions that other countries that have achieved progress have asked and largely answered. Those questions are: what is the purpose of higher education in Nigeria? How is our higher education connected to our vision of society and the nature of our economy? Let’s not persist in the erroneous thinking that higher education is an end in itself. It is not. Higher education is a vehicle that every country uses to develop its human capital to fulfil the goals of its national development. Therefore, by simply looking at the way a country structure and directs its higher education, one should be able to tell what kind of society that country is trying to build and what its development objectives are. This certainly is not the case with Nigeria.

An average student in our universities cannot even tell why they are there and how the next four years of their lives connects to their life career. Perhaps, worse still, even the country cannot tell why we invest in a child to acquire a university degree. It is therefore; quite disconcerting to see our government flaunt the creation of more universities as achievement. Creating more universities look good until you examine the context more closely. Of the nine universities created in 2011 by the Jonathan administration, six are in the north of Nigeria (Jigawa, Taraba, Nasarawa, Kogi, Katsina and Gombe). However, none of these states has recorded less than 80 per cent failure rate in WAEC/NECO in the last seven years or so. You would therefore ask what the sense is in building universities when majority of the children cannot read or do simple arithmetic.

One of the reasons given for the establishment of these universities is the need to create more admission places. However, if you visit any of these universities, majority of them actually have more non-teaching staff than students. The Executive Secretary of JAMB, Professor Ishaq Oloyede pointed out recently that the argument that we need more admission spaces is a fallacy, which does not reflect the reality that many of our universities are actually unable to fill their admission quota. As a matter of fact, recent UME figures show that only about half of the candidates who sit for the examination are able to score 150 and above. Yet, we continue to grant more licences to open more universities based on a misguided need to expand admission spaces. Thus, university attendance has become an end by itself. The evidence of our folly lies in the fact that employers believe that only about 10 per cent of our university graduates are work ready. The grand irony of youth unemployment in Nigeria is that while so many of our youths are looking for jobs, we also have so many jobs looking for competent people to hire. We have talked so much about the disconnect between the kind of training our universities supply and the kind of skills our market demands. Richard Dowden sums it up better when he noted that “poor education has produced disillusioned youths, whose family capital has been wasted by sending them to schools with no skills at the end of it.”

Let us take our movie industry, which has been recognised as the fastest growing movie industry in the world. To participate in that industry, the questions would remain, can you act? Can you write? Can you edit? Can you do graphics? Can you design costumes? Can you direct? Can you design sets? Can you use the cameras? Can you design posters and CD jackets? Can you market films? And so on. This industry does not care what certificate you bring, unless those certificates translate to greater competence and higher productivity.

If 80% of our youth population do not have more than secondary education, common sense recommends that our priority should be how to empower this category of our youths to become economically productive. This is why we must commend the Government of Kwara State for the vision of establishing the International Vocation College at Ajase Ipo. We must however move from there to ensure the integration of the college with the relevant industries so that the content and practices of the college is driven by the nature and standards of skills that the industry and hence the market require. We must understand that decontextualized skills training are no longer enough to produce market ready workers.

As it relates to our immediate community, there is yet another dimension that we must pay attention to. It is estimated that there are about 8.5 million children enrolled in Quranic schools and Madrasas in northern Nigeria. Historically, these kinds of schools were a means of progressing to a variety of disciplines, which had formed the basis of Islamic civilisation to which Western civilisation remains indebted. These days however, these schools have degenerated into centres for mere rote learning of the Qur’an, some limited aspects of religious doctrines and a smattering of Arabic language. The children passing through these schools have not been prepared to partake in the boundless opportunities that the modern world offers. The ossification of Islamiya education is a present danger to our community and our country. We need an urgent reform in this area so that Islamiya education can also stand as true alternative pathway to career opportunities. If we use state resources to do this, we would not be promoting Islam, but we would be acting in enlightened self interest which recognises that we are all endangered by the failure of a system that exclude millions of our citizens from life chances.

The nature of work has changed. Therefore, the nature of skills and training we give to our youths must also change. Very soon, our locally trained artisans and craftsmen would be out of jobs forever, unless we make coordinated efforts to upgrade their skills and bring them in line with developments in technology. The modern car is a virtual computer on wheels. Our local mechanic will therefore be unable to deal with them unless we are able to give them the required retraining to cope. Like the mechanics, most jobs are now going the way of automation. So much that computers are now taking over the work that human beings used to perform. This further emphasises the importance of skills and underlines the urgent need to bring the philosophy of our education in line with market requirement.

One major element that is missing in our vocational and skills training is national qualification and competency standardisation system that enables prospective employers to estimate the competency of our skilled workers in a systematic manner. It is therefore important for us to develop a national qualification and certification standards that puts premium on certificates acquired in skills institutions, whether in ICT, social services, construction, entertainment or any others in our core economic drivers.

We would be giving employers greater confidence if we shift away from an education system that focuses on learning input model to one that is based on learning outcomes and defines curriculum, assessment and qualifications in terms of what a learner knows, understands and can do as a result of the learning process, rather than the institutions attended or years spent in school. In other words, the value we should be attaching to a certificate must be based on the competence and productivity of the holder rather than the certificate itself. Making this change, would free us from the useless arguments over whether a university degree should be superior to an HND. The simple truth is that a world that puts premium on skills and competency that an individual brings to the market have left us behind while we continue to argue over pieces of paper.

In addition, developing a National Vocational Qualification Standards would also accelerate our ability to access international markets because it would set explicit standards for our certification based on the competence of our workforce. It would also create a clear career development path for our young people, thereby conferring the prestige that they seek and serve as veritable alternative to university education as the only dignifying post-secondary career.

We must have the courage to move away from our policy tradition and embrace the radical changes that the world imposes on us. The change that we need is so fundamental that it requires us to ask the difficult questions that we have not had a cause to ask in the past. No greater challenges confront the world at this age more than the challenge of youth employment. Global terror imperils us all. But even this feeds to a significant extent on the despair and disillusion among young people. The traditional national questions in our country around how to manage the difference of our ethnic, regional and religious identity must be necessarily overtaken by even a more fundamental question: How do we create opportunities for our youth, so the great national assets that they potentially represent do not continue to be national liabilities, and so that the blessings that they represent to our country, do not become the curse of our nation. The world is moving away from big markets to efficient markets and placing greater value on productive population than huge population. We must move in the same direction and develop a national strategy that would convert our amazing human resources to human resourcefulness. This is the only way we can have hope that our country would take its rightful place among the great nations of the world in the years to come.
Thank you.

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