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Is ‘igba boy’ the Permanent Answer to the Nigerian Job Crisis?

“I cannot even imagine the number of people that stamped on me” is what one survivor[1] said when the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) set up a recruitment examination in the capital, few would have guessed that up to 18 people would be killed and many more injured. Whilst the cause of the incident is still being investigated, there is little need for any lengthy report into what the country’s young were doing that day – they were looking for a job. In fact 500,000 of Nigeria’s youth paid N1000 for one of the 4500 jobs on offer.

The World Bank’s last survey[2] concluded that 14.1% of male population aged 15 – 24 are looking for work but most Nigerians would agree that’s an underestimate of the 100,000 graduates that finish further education but can’t find employment. This would put Nigeria only 4% behind war torn Afghanistan. In fact, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS)[3], stated that 54% of Nigerian youth were unemployed in 2012 and women were worse off than their male counterparts (51%). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that a cocktail of  male youth unemployment, with a dash of okada bans is the perfect recipe for unfettered criminal activity.  And most people will have you know there is too much of that already.

A lesser discussed cultural dimension to the jobs crisis, highlighted by Funmi Wale-Adegbite[4], is that Nigerian parents could be over parenting and this represents a “national malaise”. She suggests that whether rich or poor, many continue to nurture their offspring into their 30s and that this sense of dependency deprives the young of the drive they need to get out and start earning, although this may be a symptom of those in wealthier areas of society. As Yomi Jemibewon suggests in his blog[5], equally problematic is the limited pool of qualified candidates for the more senior and management roles. This holds back businesses trying to expand. Another factor contributing to the crisis in Nigeria is the “What does good look like ?” factor. This is a business maxim that applies when a business sector has low quality standards, combined with very little understanding of how to implement change. As Yomi points out “acceptable norms [..] are quite alarming”. Finally, perhaps the greatest impediment to change, is the unofficial Nigerian dream – to ‘hammer’, defined in lay mans terms as the seemingly viral thirst for a quick buck. When young Nigerians see role models who have considerable accrued wealth through little action or work and miraculous oil block allocations, there is a lack of “long term sustained career development[6]” which holds everyone back, as everyone chases immediate gratification.

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Apprenticeships in Igboland, also known as ‘igba boy’ are more popular in certain areas over others, and they small businesses or families to pass on skills and employment to their young for a sustained period, with the promise of a ‘settlement’ – a lump sum of money intended for use as business capital at the end of the agreed term. There is little doubting that those on the receiving end are very keen on being chosen, it gives them valuable skills and the promise of being set up in business, but does it always work ? Originally, the patriarch or ‘oga’, after years of training and education of the apprentice, is supposed to set up the youngster in business with start up capital. Sometimes this fails to materialise for one reason or the other, resulting in a fractured relationship between both parties. Other stories have been worse. Apprentices have been used as slaves and kept in captivity. With little legal framework in place to govern the selection and use of apprentices, it is a danger area. An Igbo blogger, Sylvia[7], points to the lack of a formal written contract between apprentice and master and the lack of a continued education for the young that will hamper the Nigeria Igbo in the future.

But whilst there are difficulties, if you want to see the success of this scheme look no further than Chief Innocent Chukwuma. Currently he is the Chairman of the Innoson Group, who was given as an apprentice to Rojenny (Chief Eze Onwuka[8] back in the 70’s ). With his 3000 settlement,he was able to build a business worth billions. Or pick Chief Augustine Ilodibe with his very successful Ekene Dili Chukwu transport business. Were they just lucky or could one argue that being given on-the-job training and valuable skills, they made their own luck ?

So can these apprenticeship schemes alleviate the jobs crisis ? Well yes and no. On the one hand they ensure that skills and expertise are passed down the generations, the schemes also act as ‘start up incubators’ generating income and they undoubtedly save many young from a life of emptiness and crime. Conversely, the principle is open to abuse and the selection for the posts is not open but based on who you know and will therefore be selective amongst society.

What is society ? The kind of question we expect our undergraduates to answer at University but it’s an important question to ask if we’re analysing the jobs crisis. If a society is not trying to achieve ‘full employment’ then it is naturally assuming that certain members of its society are destined to have unproductive lives. That breeds crime and political instability. So if Nigeria wants to enjoy the African Century then it must, as a collective, set higher goals. “What does this mean to me ?” Is a question you might ask yourself. Like all great strategic paths, the route to success is via lots of small steps. If every small or medium enterprise in Nigeria took on one apprentice, overnight there would be an instant generation of apprentices. They would become more productive, create wealth and the multiplier effect would take a hold. Businesses would then reap the benefit of that created wealth, all be it not instantly. As a collection of citizens and businesses it is in everyone’s interest to see wealth created as the group benefits. Owners of small businesses will say that they lack the funds for such an overhead, but if you accept the logic of hiring one it ceases to become a burden and becomes an investment. Perhaps the question should be reversed: why have you not got an apprentice ? It seems to work well in Germany (see below).

In a country as rich as Nigeria, with a large young population, education must be the answer to the country’s needs; diversifying the country away from raw materials to services and skills. To ensure that happens there must be institutions to pass on skills (colleges and universities), recipients (students) and a role in the workplace where the skills are honed. It is perhaps this last part of the equation that is missing. Should the government create hollow, state funded jobs (the selection of which is open to corruption) which don’t produce any real economic output or should the private sector seek to create its own apprenticeships or should the Government, as Feyi Fawehinmi says[9], formalise the Igbo style apprenticeship scheme across the country ?

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When that survivor was almost trampled to death at the NIS recruiting fair, she was in fact risking her life for state funded benefits. There is little doubt that no country can maintain funding jobs that are economically unproductive. It follows that the jobs are therefore just a means of transferring state funds back to its citizens. No wonder everyone wanted to join the Immigration service. Following this logic, in this process, the Government is providing the investment; it is funding and selecting those jobs and employees. Is any Government the right organisation to make such a subjective decision about what economic areas, pay scales etc are required ? Or could one say that the market (businesses like yours) is better placed to select what areas could benefit from an apprenticeship ? Businesses know which skills they lack and want to invest in far better than a central civil servant, bound by the conventions of public accountability.

Perhaps Nigeria should look to Germany where there is a well known apprenticeship scheme for school leavers; there is almost a 50:50 ratio between school leavers who choose to go to University, and school leavers who attend vocational apprenticeships (570,000 a year). Perhaps that is an unfair comparison to make as it is not just the apprenticeship but the dedicated colleges, the tax treatment, the long established relations between major companies and their communities and the number of vocation qualifications on offer that seals the deal.

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What would be the difficulties with a national apprenticeship scheme ?

  1. Federal. Any Nigerian would tell you that such a scheme would have to run over a very large country where different provinces have different ways of doing things. So there would need to be a federalised version, with bespoke options available.
  2. Partnerships. Vocational learning schemes work well when universities, companies and the population work together. To quote someone else out of context; ‘think not what you can do for a company, think what does the company want from me ?’. If Nigerian schools and colleges teach the skills which Nigerian companies want – then all parties benefit. Those companies then make a profit by outskilling their competitors with a ready supply of talent on hand. So apprenticeships cease to become a burden and are become a catalyst for growth.
  3. Taxation. Schemes must be financially attractive to companies. If this is not done through taxation, then a return of employment service must be applicable. The company does not want to train apprentices for little or no return of service. Apprenticeships must contribute to the bottom line and, as has been outlined above, will create downstream tax revenue in time.
  4. Enterprise Zones. The Government could create enterprise zones or centres of excellence such that skills are readily transferable from school leavers to vocational qualifications to employment in a seamless way. If you wanted proof of how education can lead to profit, look no further than Silicon Valley. Stanford University spent time and money attracting the best teachers and students to its campus and, as if by magic, it spawned an entire industry on its doorstep. Keep away from Lagos, reduce costs and spread the wealth and enterprise.
  5. Formal Contract. One of the failures of the Igbo scheme is that there is no formal written contract and this hampers both parties. Any formal Government or private run scheme would need to be precise about what is required, the length of the commitment, the benefits and the desired end state required.
  6. Education. In her Igbo blog[10], Sylvia points to a need to continue with formal education during an apprenticeship which prevents thousands of Nigeria’s young rushing to leave school so that they can set up a stall in a market. In the German version, both the provider and the trainee have to share the available time so that skills are accredited and qualifications gained.
  7. Accreditation. There will always be a gap between those who wish to continue the global search for knowledge and gain a degree, those who choose a more practical and vocational approach to their job should still be accredited, warehousing, stock keeping, plumbing etc. Having an established national accreditation scheme, corruption free, will allow employers to surpass their competitors in business.

The key to unlocking a national scheme that might work is a tripartite arrangement: each of the three parts of the equation must benefit and contribute for this to work. Whilst the Government has a clear role to play in setting up the framework, it cannot be the sole pillar of support. It must ensure that there is sufficient protection for trainee and trainer and that there is a clear financial incentive for the private sector to accept apprenticeships. The second leg in this stool is Nigerian’s academic framework, universities and vocational colleges must be bought into the plan and provide courses which business wants and needs, in a shared, collegiate manner. Finally, and most importantly, the private sector must provide the opportunities which will engender a learning and skills-based environment. If Nigeria is going to avoid the sort of catastrophe where its youth get trampled looking for work, then unlocking the young mind is the key.

What options are available to the apprenticeship seeker?

Searching for apprenticeships in Nigeria results in a dead end, save for a couple of 28 year old documents about a National Apprenticeship scheme which never materialised.

You’re likely to get better results by applying some out-of-the-box thinking, approaching businesses directly and offering to work for them for a minimal rate in exchange for on-the-job training. If there’s a skill you want to learn, chances are there’s a business looking for an employee who has that skill. Why not take matters into your hands, and proactively approach businesses where you’d love to work? Most employers love proactive people, so you have little to lose.

You can send them a draft letter of intent to work as an apprentice like this below:

Dear Ms Ajayi,

I am writing to inquire about the possibility of working for Ajayi Restaurants as an apprentice chef.

I am a 19 year old male, keen in expanding my knowledge of creating palatable dishes within a successful commercial environment, and I believe Ajayi Restaurants is the perfect place to begin my career in this field.

As you can see from my CV, I completed my secondary school education in 2012 and I have since worked as a waiter/server in a local restaurant. I have been quite successful in this role, however I believe it is time to enhance my career and train myself towards a more permanent role. I have the drive and the willingness to learn which would be beneficial for your business in saving staffing costs and beneficial to me as I cannot afford to put myself through a more conventional training program due to financial difficulties. 

As you can see from my CV, I have worked in a kitchen environment, and I am aware of what it means to work in a team in order to ensure customers are happy. I am also aware of food hygiene standards, as well as the importance of being punctual and looking tidy at all times, especially within an food service environment.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my application and if you require any further information please contact me on the details provided above.

Yours Sincerely,

Musa Ibrahim

[1]           Al Jazeera 16 Mar 2014 ( Link)

[2]           http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.UEM.1524.MA.ZS

[3]           National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) report on youth unemployment (Link)

[4]           Interview BBC World Service 20 July 2011.

[5]           ‘Entrepreneurship in Africa – Be Prepared for the human challenges” 17 Feb 2014 (http://www.trnmagaziine.com/)

[6]           Ibid.
[7]      In her blog, “Igbo Culture Traditions and History” (aka) Enyi oha Nd’Igbo on Link
[8]         Feyi Fawehinmi in “Rhetoric Matters” (Link)
[9]                 Feyi Fawehinmi in “Rhetoric Matters” (Link)

[10]          In her blog, “Igbo Culture Traditions and History” (aka) Enyi oha Nd’Igbo on Link

 

About Zima Meli

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