Akala: How Niger Delta States Can Address Youth Unemployment

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Dr. Dara Akala

To address the deep-rooted socio-economic issues in the Niger Delta region, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND), established in 2010 by Chevron Corporation, Dr. Dara Akala, in this interview with Sunday Okobi, spoke about how state governments in the region can address youth unemployment using PIND Foundation’s Niger Delta Youth Pathway Employment Pathway (NDYEP) project models.

Youth unemployment is growing in the Niger Delta region. What can be done to address this menace?

There is a reason why unemployment is growing in the Niger Delta region. People go to school, they but there are no jobs to do because of lack of opportunities, which is caused by the low absorptive capacity of the economy for the young men and women coming into the labour market every year. Job availability is a function of the size and structure of the economy. In the case of the Niger Delta, the dominant sector is the oil and gas, which provides less than one percent of the jobs.

When there are no opportunities, young people who have skills cannot put those skills to use. Many of them who go to school come out with the wrong type of skills. They become idle and frustrated, and in a bid to find something to do, they get engaged in all kinds of nefarious activities, including cultism, kidnapping.

To address these issues, we have to provide gainful employment for the teeming youths in the Niger Delta. We have to expand the economic opportunities that are available to the young men and women in the region to make them gainfully employed and able to generate income to look after themselves and their families. It’s a foundational issue.

What led to the creation of the NDYEP project?

The whole idea of the project is to try and fix these foundational problems. How do we expand the opportunities that are available to the youths in the region?

The whole thing started by looking at the situation in the Niger Delta region. In 2015, the Ford Foundation supported the office of the vice-president to carry out assessments on unemployment in the country, including the Niger Delta region, and identified ways of addressing them. They came up with job creation strategies for the country and an implementation framework. That was the background study.

Then Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND) conducted a follow-up labour market assessment in the pilot states of Akwa Ibom, Rivers, and Abia to understand the labour market better and look at how we could fix some of the issues in that market. The research findings informed priority sectors for skills development in each state and the design of the Niger Delta Youth Employment Pathways (NDYEP) project interventions.

NDYEP project was, therefore, developed to design models of job readiness and workforce development that will provide opportunities for youths to access sustainable employment by equipping them with market-relevant skills. It is about connecting them with job opportunities that must be sustainable.

What are the NDYEP models?

This is the model that seeks to address market failures in the labour market in the region. It is to link the youths with jobs and to build their skills. These skills include technical skills, soft skills, and entrepreneurship so that the people are well equipped to earn an income on a sustainable basis. There are some features of the model which we have come to realise are quite essential for us to be able to accomplish the goals we have set for ourselves.

In the first place, it is demand-driven. Within various sectors of the economy, there is a demand for labour and workers but they are looking for certain skills. The situation we found ourselves in the Niger Delta area was about misalignment of demand for labour with the supply of labour. Our demand-driven approach helps to achieve an alignment between what the market needs and the skills that are being supplied to the market. This will ensure that there is market equilibrium between the labour market force and the people, who have the right skills required, to get employed. Both job seekers and employers are happy because their needs are met.

Another thing about the model is that it is competency-focused. We are not training just for the sake of training but with a strong focus on the end result. The NDYEP project focuses on developing the requisite skills and knowledge for successful job performance by the youths in the relevant sectors. In this competency-based approach, our plan is to develop a competency framework working with the National Board for Technical Education that will provide accreditation for the trainees and training programme. The NDYEP accredited-learning model equips people with practical skills that are evidenced by the NBTE.

Then we are modeling multiple pathways to jobs in these states. So far, experience has shown us that there are two broad pathways to employment. One pathway leads to formal, waged employment=when they come out of the training, they are gainfully employed and receive payment for their services. The other pathway is that of entrepreneurship that enables graduates of this scheme, rather than being job seekers, to become job creators themselves.

Another key feature of the model is the work to strengthen coordination and facilitate positive engagements among the ecosystem of the actors. There are many stakeholders that are interested in the issue of unemployment. A lot of government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are concerned that there is unemployment in the country. We have the private sector that has training and development issues. We need to bring together these key actors to ensure the development of an enabling environment for focused skills training and development that leads to employment and entrepreneurship-so that the policymakers contribute something on the policy side and the implementers execute their programmes to maximise the developmental impact of investments in employment creation programmes. We crave a win-win situation.

Another thing we seek to do in our model is entrepreneurship plus. What we have observed in the Niger Delta is that the incentive to learn is starter packs they will get at the end of the day. We are not doing starter packs because we believe it is not the right thing to do. People should come to this programme because they are motivated to learn. When youths go through our technical and entrepreneurship training, then we provide them with the necessary post-training support to be able to establish their own businesses. This support assists young entrepreneurs and emerging startups to navigate the very harsh conditions of the business world that cause business failure. This support includes business advisory services, market linkages, and connection to a source of capital for growth and business expansion.

How do you sustain the model?

To make it sustainable, we are working with private sector providers and that is a key element of our development approach at PIND Foundation. It is a market systems approach. We work with private sector players who have an incentive to carry on with this youth skills development even when our project ends because that is where they earn their daily bread. We provide them with the enablement to get started, building their capacity to provide services, rather than our programme staff providing services that will end after the program is over.

We see ourselves as development facilitators. The little funds that we invest are to prime the pump to get them started. Once they build up their market as they work with us, they keep on providing this service to people that need it. So sustainability is a key element of the model.

What has been the impact of the NDYEP project so far?

We started the design of the programme around December 2017, and with funding support from Ford Foundation, we began the pilot implementation in 2018. We have churned out two batches between 2018 and 2020, and the third one is starting now.

In the first batch, we had 1,637 youths enrolled in the programme and a total of 1,468 completed the programme in the three sectors of ICT, aquaculture and construction. That is about a 90 percent completion rate. For the second batch that ended not too long ago, we had 1,713 people who enrolled and 1,530 completed, which is about 89 percent completion rate.

Of all the people who were trained, the end goal is actually our starting point. For employment, transitioning into paid employment or entrepreneurship work, we had a total of 836 people. Besides that, we found out that there is a bridge in terms of apprenticeship for those who were looking for work and are not immediately absorbed. And when an opportunity arises, they are transitioned into full employment. With that, we have 233 that are into full apprenticeship in year one and 486 for year two.

How can the NDYEP model help states to create jobs?

If you look at the features of the model, you will see that there is no doubt that every state government wants to do something to address youth unemployment. There is no doubt that they are already doing some things because if you look at the various parts of the public sectors in the states like the ministry of education, youth and employment, you would find out that between these ministries in the different states, there is a significant allocation of resources towards skills development/job creation.

They won’t need to start from ground zero. They can look at what we are doing, assess its effectiveness, and where there are gaps, they can close them. Before they start off, for example, have they taken the time to look at the markets? Have they taken time to look at what the market needs so that they can produce the needs of the market? The NDYEP model has produced methodologies to do that as well as assisting them in doing that.

Another thing is to find skill development programmes that do not focus exclusively on technical skills, which are good, but are also looking at the business and social skills that are required. So we need a bit of entrepreneurship training to develop their skills in order to be able to run successful businesses.

In addition to that, it is not everybody that has technical skills that can work in the workplace. That is where the element of social skills that help to improve the behaviour of people in the workplace is quite necessary.

Incorporating these elements of the NDYEP model will help the state governments to fine-tune what they are doing and help them to develop new programmes. We are advocating for that. We are looking at what is in place and how we can help enhance the effectiveness of these programmes.

Can the model succeed in other value chains aside from aquaculture, ICT and construction industries?

These sectors that you enumerated are just the starting point of our intervention. We are going to enhance the effectiveness of the existing programmes. The starting point will be the market assessment. We have to look at the sectors that are driving economic growth in each state. In some states, it could be ICT, aquaculture, or construction. In some states, it could be something completely different.

It needs to be a fit-for-purpose. We started with three sectors based on initial studies, and for every state, we will look at what exists, and also where new opportunities exist. It is important to design bespoke programmes that are specific in addressing circumstances and a specific opportunity that is available in the state.

Which of the states has adopted the model, and how do you convince them to adopt the model?

There are nine states in the region, and there are various levels of development and receptivity to new ideas. The engagements to convince state governments are still ongoing, and we will need to look at what we can do to support them. The key purpose of the NDYEP roundtable we had in July with state governments was to further build on the engagement we are having. We are beginning to see interests in some of the states such as Delta, Abia, and Rivers States in adopting the model.

The state that is more advanced in willingness and interest to collaborate with PIND is Delta State, and that could be because we have been a part of its Youth Agricultural Entrepreneurs Programme (YAGEP) they designed many years ago. So, it was easy to further our conversation with them. We have gone far with our engagement with them and are coming to an agreement to work together and incorporate the elements of the NDYEP that suit their programme.

The emergence of COVID-19 may have affected plans to address youth unemployment. How can states be able to surmount the challenges created by the virus?

No one could have foreseen the kind of situation we are going through. When we look back to January this year, there is no doubt that the COVID-19 has severely impacted the various plans that were drawn up at the beginning of the year.

But what do we do? Now that the economy is reopening gradually, the first thing to do is to revalidate our plans. States can carry out a quick assessment of their plans. When they were drawing up the plans earlier in the year, they made a lot of assumptions. Are these assumptions still valid today? They have to reboot.

The pandemic has not been 100 percent negative. It has introduced new opportunities in some sectors like manufacturing. We see businesses producing sanitizers, face shields, and face masks. State governments need to understand the dynamics of the economic forces that are currently at play in each of their states in order to revalidate their existing plans before bringing them back into execution.

We cannot just assume that the status quo before the pandemic still remains at this point in time. That will be a major mistake to make. It could also be that the original plans have the potential to achieve the goals of the plans and are adequate to address the issues, but we need to revalidate just to respond to current realities. We need to fine-tune the initial plans and reconfigure our plans in the post-COVID-19 period.