• Sunday, February 25, 2024
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BusinessDay

Wanted in Nigeria: Bright young technicians

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Last Saturday I was honoured to give a speech at the 11th graduation ceremony of the Institute for Industrial Technology (IIT), a project of African Development Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation.

Of the 69 graduates, a microcosm of Nigeria’s male youth population between 15 and 35 years of age, 36 were graduates of the electromechanics programme for young school leavers and 33 were graduates of IIT’s mechatronics programme for young engineering professionals.

ITT, arguably one Nigeria’s best-kept secret, is nestled in Isheri-North. Most of its students are from indigent families. Most are on part-scholarships augmented with the sale of assets or a loan. One madam, a cleaner, took a N300,000 advance from her cooperative.

In my view, IIT is ahead of the curve of Nigeria’s Industrial Revolution. Last November, “like a thief in the night”, the electricity industry was privatised. Blackouts still persist and millions of households and companies spend billions of naira on petrol and diesel to fuel their generators.

Even so, $1.6bn has been paid to acquire PHCN. Why spend so much on a neglected burdened with obsolete technology? Why commit so much when a fridge in the US consumes four times more electricity per kilowatt than an average Nigerian?

Well, this generator-powered economy e has grown at an average of 7 percent in the last 10 years and produced the wealthiest African in the world: Aliko Dangote. Dangote Industries Limited has set up an Academy to ensure it gets manpower to run its numerous factories. Its target is to employ 300 technicians a year.

ITT, in partnership with an NGO and with the support of three companies has designed a new programme: electrotechnics to train young Nigerians for the electricity industry.

Its dual-training system focuses on skills- and worked-based learning with as much emphasis on ethics. Unfortunately there are not enough IITs in Nigeria.

The opportunity for a vibrant industrial sector, which is critical to fixing unemployment, has never been better. And the manufacturing sector is rising, slowly.

Of every hundred jobs generated in the 4th quarter of 2012, 5 of them were in manufacturing, 50 were in education and 16 were in financial intermediation, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

In the 1st quarter of 2013, 6 of every hundred jobs generated were in the manufacturing sector, 39 were in education, 23 were in financial intermediation and 15 were in health and social work.

Dangote says to drive Nigeria’s growth the major challenge is not funding, markets or raw materials but the “absence of highly trained and experienced human resources.” Dangote should know. He is betting $9 billion on a fertiliser, petrochemical and refining complex.

Technical and vocational educational training is a binding constraint to the growth of the industrial sector. Unfortunately it’s a neglected, snubbed and disregarded.

We are crazy for certificates. We are preoccupied with “academics” and have ignored practical education. Our fiscal deficit is nothing compared to our human capital crisis. This prejudice is uninformed.

There are lessons to be learned from Britain’s prejudice against technical qualifications how it lost the first mover advantage in the Industrial Revolution. Britain’s industrial sector declined because it took too long to realise and develop a national strategy for technical education, and it failed to establish a network of technical education institutions.

In the late 18th century, Britain’s apprenticeship system was superb.  Highly skilled workers, mostly apprentices, mainly little known technicians, mechanics and engineers were engaged mostly in three sectors of the British economy: textiles, transportation (road, rails and canals) and precise instruments.

These men, who were active in the Industrial Revolution, have been called the tweakers-and-implementers. Britain’s advantage derived primarily from its cadres of skilled and creative tweakers.

The dominant route for transferring and acquiring skills in that period was an effective master-apprentice system. Their talent was tacit. That is, it was learned from hands-on instruction and personal experience not from books.

The demand for such skills was so high across Europe that until 1824 it was illegal for technicians to emigrate. Ironically, the famous Statute of Apprentices and Artificers that mandated such training was repealed in 1814.

London in 1849 was expanding, attracting migrants: rich and poor. Its railway stations, ports, banks, factories and breweries provided “conveniences, comforts and amenities” catering to wealthy Londoners. Harold Perkins, an economic historian, argues that “Consumer demand was the ultimate economic key to the Industrial Revolution”. The city’s needs and purchasing power gave entrepreneurs “compelling incentives to adopt new technologies and create new industries”.

Nigeria’s expanding middle class is resulting in the demand for consumer durables. Factories that manufacture these items require a high degree of precision and skill. I see IIT graduates as apprentice-knowledge workers who could become either entrepreneurs or managers of manufacturing companies.

Technical-vocational education is not for academic rejects. Germany and Switzerland have maintained strong manufacturing sectors and they share one thing in common: apprenticeship programmes.

From 15 children are apprentices. After spending a few years, depending on their skill, they can make BMWs. And because they started young and learned from older people, German and Swiss products cannot be matched in quality.

Can Nigeria develop a critical mass of well-trained, skilled and adaptable workforce at all levels of industry and manufacturing? How do we improve literacy and numeracy at primary and secondary level?

How do we foster interest through books, articles and publications? When will discussions about the benefits of a technical education become common in beer parlours? How do we promote a culture of improvement through the application of useful knowledge?  How can we put technology at the service of social problems?

There are three models of industrial training: the free market model (e.g. in the US and Japan companies privately fund the training of their staff at private training colleges and institutes); interventionist model (e.g. in France where training institutes are funded by the state); and the corporatist model e.g. in Germany, a public private partnership or joint venture with agreed procedures and standards).

We must also overcome our scorn for practical knowledge. This negative perception of technical education affects student morale. Add to that poor funding, examination-oriented curricula, lack of qualified teachers/instructors and weak literacy/numeracy skills.

A Nigerian entrepreneur who has set up two businesses in the past 20 years says “Power can wait, bad roads can wait, [the] growth of children can’t: a day missed is an opportunity lost forever.”

By: Tayo Fagbule