Youth Unemployment and Vocational Education Imperative


By Tunji Olaopa

If one is asked to put a finger on two defining indices of Nigeria’s post-independence socioeconomic crisis, it is not difficult to identify youth unemployment and poverty as the core of the national malaise. While they are not peculiar to Nigeria, they are definitely the source of social instability since Nigeria became a sovereign nation. Indeed, youth unemployment places the Nigerian government within a serious paradox. The youth population of any state points at a humongous human capital energy that is to be harnessed towards productivity, economic growth and national development. This is all the more so if such a state has a large proportion of its population in the median age that define a youth. According to international conventions, a youth is someone between the ages of 15 and 35 years. This age bracket is significant because it defines a period when most people enter into the workforce and transforms the productivity profile of any nation. In demographics, when any state has the majority of its population within this age bracket, it is called the youth bulge. And it instigates government rapid efforts at human capital development that will link efforts at achieving labor productivity with policy intelligence about harnessing this youth energy.

The good news about the Nigerian socioeconomic situation is that the Nigerian state is demographically prepared for development. The fact that Nigeria’s median population is 18.4 years of age highlights two significant points. The first is that Nigeria is in the prime of her youth bulge. This means that the Nigerian population framework is youthful. The second point is that this demographic fact ought to be the dynamic that stimulate policy intelligence from the Nigerian state in a way that harness this youth bulge into a significant productivity workforce. Unfortunately, successive Nigerian governments have not adequately taken advantage of this socioeconomic opportunity. And this is established by the glaring statistics of approximately 52.65% of Nigerian youths who are unemployed. We do not even have the figure of those who have been swallowed up in the informal sector in semi-employment, and even the vast millions who are unemployable.

So many factors and variables explain Nigeria’s unemployment dilemma. I will mention a few. First, Nigeria’s higher education dynamics is the first culprit as it enables a curriculum crisis which truncates what ought to be a smooth school-to-work transition. Second, here is a critical dearth in the industrial skill needs including areas of current and emerging skills shortages and competencies paraded by products of colleges and universities in Nigeria. Third, there is a low level of enterprise-based training and investment going by international standards. Fourth, there is changing structure of labour market’s due to changing global flexible employment practices, work patterns, globalization of HR that has formalized the institutionalization of brain drain and the level of competitiveness defining career growth. Fifth, there is a demographic change and high population growth rates which throw up two contradictory trends of ageing workforce with attendant organizational amnesia on the hand and challenge of equipping the restless youthful but nomadic new generation workforce with adaptive and multi-skilling flexibilities. And last, there are also critical issues of the availability of jobs and employments, and their capacity to employ. This is due largely to the uncomplimentary ease of doing business profile of Nigeria. On the World Bank Ease of Doing Business Index for 2018, Nigeria ranked 146 out of a total of 190 countries.

More significantly, we are witnessing a failure in policy and implementation that has failed to impact the way we conceive of education and the capacities it confers on the youths and the nation. This failure in policy results from fundamental absence of a cultural adjustment programme and a loss of value orientation that have failed to direct the educational philosophy for performance and productivity. Thus, for example, the 6-3-3-4 educational framework is grounded on a solid background that ensures not only certificates but capacities. With this system, it was guaranteed that a student will achieve self-reliant functionality when he or she finally graduates and enters the labor markets. Vocational and entrepreneurial education was central to the conception of the 6-3-3-4 framework. Unfortunately, the rejection of this framework, through lack of policy intelligence, ensures that students now only sign on for empty certificates and fruitless searches for white-collar jobs. The reality today is that the Nigerian labor market is flooded with all sorts of certificates, genuine and counterfeits, but with no improvements in productivity and economic development.

However, Nigeria has always been a resilient country defined essentially by its enterprising youths who hold tenaciously to their strength to pull through any situation in life as long as they get to their destinations. This is attested to by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (2012) which categorically states that Nigeria is an entrepreneurial nation where 44% of the population create their own business opportunities and follow through with them. This, according to the survey, takes Nigeria to the top of the list as the most enthusiastic in terms of business innovation. Furthermore, a 2017 BBC survey revealed that Nigeria has the largest number of female entrepreneurs in the world at 40%. Indeed, the solid comment of the CEO of Shoprite is even more instructive.

According to him, even if 60% of Nigerians are living below poverty line, the remaining 40% is, in market terms, still bigger than the entire South Africa population. All this points attention to the resilience of the Nigerian youths as well as the untapped potentials of the Nigerian entrepreneurial and vocational dynamics for economic growth and national development. The Nigerian business and entrepreneurial space is an incredibly creative and rugged one filled with all types of innovative and smart ideas and frameworks: Co-Creation Hub, Paga, Jobberman, Bellanaija, WeCycler. And there are youth in significant number making waves in e-Commerce, real estate, agricultural-business, fast moving consumer goods, food processing, waste management, to name just a few.

What do all these add up to for the aspiring youths, especially those who are still in the universities and the vocational institutes? Essentially, there is a need for a large dose of enlarged consciousness and self-education. There are several things that are not yet in place for the government to handle the issue of capacity utilization and human capital development required to transform the socioeconomic situation undermining the vocational and entrepreneurial capacities of the youths. There are the curricula of universities that are grossly disconnected from the competence and skill requirements of Nigeria. There is the infrastructural deficit which the Nigerian government is seriously engaging. The business environment needs to become more friendly for business and entrepreneurial insights and innovation. Until all these are appropriately resolved, the youths must develop a coping strategy that comes from the understanding that whatever certificates they hold or are about to receive must be upgraded vocationally. This delivers more clout to all vocational training schools and institutions as the core of the institutional dynamics needed to undermine youth unemployment in Nigeria. The vocational curricula and educational framework ground certificates within the entrepreneurial abilities and capacities of the students in a way that make them relevant to societal and national development.

There are two levels of solution to the issue of unemployment in Nigeria. One is state-based, and the other is individual-based. On the part of the Nigerian government, all the necessary frameworks with regard to employment and education are in place. The National Policy on Education and such agencies as the ITF, NDE, SMEDAN, etc. constitute crucial institutional dynamics around which the task of ameliorating unemployment can be achieved. The challenge has always been how to implement the strategies for making vocational and entrepreneurial education and training efficient and institutionalize as an veritable employment model. Nigeria also has the opportunity to strengthen its national training policies in line with global frameworks and regional peculiarities. There is also the serious issue of the informal sector and how its formalization could be enhanced by the Nigerian state. This, if appropriately done, makes it possible for the semi-employed youths to take advantage of the numerous government initiatives to boost their businesses and enterprises. Finally, since the NYSC services thousands of Nigerian youth annually, there is a huge responsibility on the government to transform both the vision and operation framework of this structure to prepare Nigerian graduates for the employment markets.

On the other hand, the vocational and entrepreneurial spirits are essentially individual. While the Nigerian government is still making enormous efforts to transform its business environment, the individual Nigerian is saddled with the responsibility of surviving and making sense of environment. The first and most fundamental recommendation in this sense is for youths to critically study the lives and business model and acumen of successful Nigerian entrepreneurs and vocational mentors. And we have so many of them, from Dangote Tayo Oviosu of Paga, Ayodeji Adewunmi of Jobberman, Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola of WeCycler, to Linda Ikeji. One, how did these vocationalists and entrepreneurs manage to successfully navigate the treacherous path that leads from start-up to break-even and sustainability, and then finally to break-through? Two, how do these success stories manage failures, set-backs and even successes? And three, what is the place of spirituality and faith in their success stories. The second fundamental solution framework is for as many youths as possible to explore the numerous entrepreneurial grants and opportunities that are available from government and private individuals and organisations. This range from the Bank of Industry programme to the numerous Foundations like the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship programme, even as these are bound to be drops of water into an ocean of a problem. The same logic applies to exploring opportunities of vocational training, from the Industrial Training Fund to the Lagos State Skill Acquisition Center.

The global world today is one that requires any aspiring individuals, especially, to find a unique relationship between certificate and vocation in the attempt to find a niche in the competitive world. It is indeed the responsibility of states like Nigeria to facilitate how their educational framework would become one in which individuals can enable their own empowerment through an entrepreneurial and vocational training which the state itself tries as much as possible to make possible.

*Being a keynote address delivered by Professor Tunji Olaopa, Executive Vice Chairman Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy, at the first graduation ceremony of the Royal Spices Academy, Ibadan ( ;