Increased graduate unemployment poses dilemma

Spiralling graduate unemployment in Nigeria is causing consternation in civil society and among captains of industry.

A number of stakeholders believe tertiary institutions have become engine rooms, manufacturing unemployable graduates who could well become social misfits. As a possible solution, some have advocated the creation of vocational centres to train the youth as much-needed artisans in Nigeria’s growing economy. There have also been suggestions that some universities be converted to vocational institutions.

When Africa’s richest businessman, Aliko Dangote, recently advertised in Nigerian print media for truck drivers, numerous graduates and even postgraduate students applied. The unprecedented phenomenon was reported in University World News at the time.

There is a general consensus that tertiary institutions, in their current state, cannot satisfy the needs of young graduates. Various and divergent responses have been suggested; the creation of vocational and trade schools, and the integration of vocationally oriented programmes into university curricula.

Fatima Suleiman, an industrial relations consultant, said tertiary institutions could be reformed to make Nigeria’s youth employable. “Necessity is the mother of invention. After all, the computer revolution, which is now an integral part of university culture worldwide, started outside the four walls of the university,” she said.

While the debate rages on, Kwara State Governor Abdulfatah Ahmed took the bull by the horns recently by creating an International Vocation Centre at Ajasse-Ipo, just outside Ilorin, the state capital. The cost of the infrastructure is valued at US$400 million. Ahmed said the centre’s priority was “to create a new generation of highly employable artisans and prosperous youth entrepreneurs through the provision of market-relevant skills under our Share Prosperity Programme”.

He said that through modern vocational training with world-class standards, the centre would transform senior secondary school-leavers, and polytechnic and university graduates into well-trained artisans ready to create jobs and contribute to the country’s prosperity.

Graduates of the international vocational centre would be awarded globally recognised certificates and diplomas moderated by the London-based City and Guilds. Thus, on completion of their courses, they would be marketable and employable, while the state would become a reputable hub for vocational and technical skills in West Africa.

He added that the centre would run on a good mix of practical and theoretical learning, with well-equipped classrooms and practical skill development areas, especially in marine and port operation, agriculture, hospitality and catering, as well as engineering, construction skills, fashion and textile design.

Kaduna Refining and Petrochemical (KRPC), a public company in northern Nigeria, undertook another experiment aimed at retraining graduates. The company had put in place a pilot project called Youth Empowerment and Skills Acquisition Program (YESAP), initially meant for secondary school-leavers only. Students learn vocational skills, including carpentry, welding and fabrication, shoe making, auto mechanical engineering, auto-spraying and the production of household products like soap, detergent, air freshener and paint, among others.

So far, the project has empowered 400 youths, most of them being university graduates. At the end of six months’ training, beneficiaries receive start-up capital from the KRPC to start their own businesses. According to Mallam Abdullahi Idris from KRPC’s public affairs department: “A number of these beneficiaries are degree holders.”

There are lessons to be learned from these initiatives. It is clear university education aimed at creating a managerial class for both the public and private sectors can no longer fulfil its initial mission. There are not enough vacancies to accommodate more than 200,000 Nigerian graduates graduating annually from local and foreign tertiary institutions.

Convinced that university education has “failed” the nation, Bishop Mike Okonkwo, founder of the Redeemed Evangelical Mission, has set up a vocational centre to train youngsters in various trades, including welding, fashion design, computer studies and masonry. The centre is in the industrial city of Aba, eastern Nigeria.

Oluwatoyin Enikuomehin, a lecturer in the department of computer science at Lagos State University, said vocational schools and tertiary institutions were complementary, and Nigeria’s policy-makers should strive for a balance between the two. While vocational schools were meant to produce desperately needed artisans for the Nigerian economy, universities as centres of research should also be funded.

“Vocational schools, unlike university education, can create opportunities for young school-leavers to acquire skills and make a living with them,” he said.