It is often said that the Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) sector holds the key to growth in emerging economies like ours. However, that role will be better played when the sector is equipped with relevant competencies and skills it needs to function effectively. In other words, the SME sector must have the capacity and dynamism demanded by the realities of the modern world. The boisterous nature of its members and their abundant energies are necessary but hardly sufficient condition for an effective delivery of its role in the economy.
There is an existing apprenticeship system in Nigeria, which has apparently worked very well, unlike most things in the country, especially for those that practice it. But that is only up to a point before it begins to retard progress both for the operators and the entire economy. As it is now, Nigeria cannot boast of an apprenticeship system that meets the need of a technological world that is driven by innovation. We surely need one. The Nigeria apprenticeship system, used mostly by those in the trading business, is indigenous and essentially home grown. Much of its practices are a result of many years of local practice and experience in the system. Thus, we can say that the apprenticeship system in Nigeria has evolved over time mainly from local experiences and even tradition. Nigeria may actually have one of the strongest apprenticeship systems in the wholesale and retail trading sector in our region.
Although local indigenous enterprises, especially in the eastern part of the country, have pioneered and popularized the system, and also survived over the years through the acquisition and the transfer of skills using the apprenticeship system, there has for many years also existed an official but ineffective apprenticeship system. Perhaps, in recognition of the fact that the best way to fight unemployment is to equip those looking for jobs with relevant skills, government took interest in the promotion of technical and vocational skills among the youth, through the apprenticeship system in the military era.
The year 1986 marked an epoch in the history of Nigeria’s economic management experience. It was the year in which the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) was introduced and the Naira began the downward journey in which it is still engaged. During this period, Nigeria introduced an official element to the apprenticeship system. The SAP implied that many new things began to happen in the country’s economic space – the exchange control law was repealed and the age-old fixed exchange rate was scrapped, deregulation, decentralization and decontrol became the major policy thrust, and there were signs of increasing entrepreneurial activity, as newly created financial institutions and instruments enhanced access to finance in the informal sector. However, because several sectors of the economy were negatively impacted, shifts began to occur in productivity, output and employment. This situation climaxed in job losses and increasing unemployment.
It was at that point that the federal government got more involved with the training and development of Nigerian manpower through skill acquisition and training. The Babangida administration, which was the architect of the SAP, as early as 1986, created the National Directorate of Employment (NDE). The government set up the NDE following the publication of a revealing statistical survey of unemployment among youths in the country, which was carried out by the Manpower Board, established in 1992 (one of those critical institutions in Nigeria that either disappeared or became part of the private estates of the strong men that control our weak institutions). According to that report, two million people, or ten percent of Nigerian youths at the time, had no jobs.
A comparison of that survey result with the current situation will give an indication of how far south things have travelled in Nigeria, especially in the area of unemployment. For instance, youth unemployment rate in Nigeria averaged 23.63 per cent from 2014 to 2018. It reached an all-time high of 38 percent in the second quarter of 2018. The all-time low was 11.70 percent, which occurred in the fourth quarter of 2014. How are the mighty fallen? The NDE organized skill acquisition and internship activities across the county’s rural areas, for participants and operated public works thereby enhancing the skills of the youth.
But things have actually worsened. With 38 per cent of the youth still unable to find jobs, it is time to restore, expand and strengthen the apprenticeship system. Part of the drivers of unemployment in Nigeria is not just our failure to significantly expand the economy but also the unemployability of the job-seeker, which we erroneously blame entirely on the formal educational system.The revamp and strengthening of the apprenticeship system could begin with the restoration of the mandates of key institutions like the NDE and the Manpower Board, which have become silent due to any number of reasons, such that it is hard to say whether they still exist.
The national Manpower Board, according to the law that set it up, had the following duties, inter alia: i) To determine and advice the government on the nation’s manpower needs in all occupations; ii) To formulate manpower development and utilization policies and programmes in order to ensure optimum implementation of same for the enhancement of the nation’s manpower resources; andiii) To co-ordinate manpower policies and programmes of Federal, State and Local Governments.Many Nigerians will be surprised to hear that there are people doing these roles on behalf of the country today. There is need therefore, to strengthen such institutions wherever they exist and link their output to the real world – the job creating entities in the economy.
The traditional apprenticeship system in the private sector can also be made more responsive to the realities in the market. As presently organized, the apprenticeship system, which traders use to groom their members is valuable but unstable. It does not have any proper procedure or legal framework to operate, and depends mostly on the whims of those providing the apprenticeship opportunity to the youth. In that regard, the system lacks stability and standards. Part of the support we could offer the informal sector should be to help with the refinement and formalization of its good inventions, including the apprenticeship system.