• Wednesday, July 24, 2024
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BusinessDay

Bridging Nigeria’s unemployment gap with smart education

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Education is a fundamental human right, playing a critical role in poverty alleviation, gender equality, peace, and stability in any progressive nation. Education is also a cornerstone of economic development, catalysing economic growth and societal advancement at large. In Nigeria, specifically, its importance cannot be overstated. As we strive to diversify our economy and reduce unemployment, we must continue to focus on education as a critical lever for addressing major skills gaps that hamper progress.

Despite significant investment, the education sector faces challenges such as inadequate funding, poor infrastructure, and a shortage of qualified teachers. According to a September 2022 article from Business Day (“Nigeria’s illiteracy rate is now 31 percent, says FG”), the literacy rate in Nigeria as of 2022 was 69 percent, notwithstanding significant disparities between states (e.g., Yobe with c. 7 percent literacy and Lagos with c. 96 percent), indicative of the attention required to homogenise literacy across the country.

Unfortunately, ‘high unemployment’ resonates when we think of Nigeria’s workforce. As of Q4 2020, Nigeria’s unemployment rate stood at 33.3 percent—one of the highest globally—with key industries such as healthcare, technology, and manufacturing suffering from a lack of skilled labour. This skills gap represents a significant barrier to economic growth and socio-economic development.

The “skills gap” refers to the disparity between the skills employers require and those readily available in the market. In Nigeria, this gap is particularly pronounced in sectors critical to economic development, such as tech, which faces a shortage of skilled software developers, data analysts, and cybersecurity experts. The healthcare sector, on the other hand, lacks qualified doctors, nurses, and technicians.

A 2021 survey by Jobberman showed 47 percent of employers reported difficulty finding candidates with the right technical skills, with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) noting that many Nigerian graduates lack practical skills, contributing to high youth unemployment rates. Addressing this mismatch is crucial for economic diversification and growth.

Educational reforms in Nigeria aimed at improving the quality and accessibility of education do exist. The Universal Basic Education (UBE) programme (1999), for example, seeks to provide free and compulsory education for children up to 15 years old. Despite noble aspirations, the programme continues to face implementation challenges, chief among which is insufficient funding. The Nigerian government has also partnered with international organisations to enhance education. For instance, the World Bank’s $611 million grant under the Better Education Service Delivery for All (BESDA) programme focuses on increasing school enrollment and reducing the number of out-of-school children.

Private sector initiatives, such as the Nigerian Economic Summit Group’s (NESG) education policy commission, work towards aligning educational outcomes with industry needs. Successful case studies, e.g., the Adopt-A-School Initiative, demonstrate the potential of public-private partnerships in improving educational standards. Ultimately, there have been wide-ranging initiatives aimed at tackling the education issue in Nigeria, all of which have faced similar challenges, mostly funding.

Finding a solution to a funding problem is never easy, but changing the paradigm to match core needs in the market could be a step in the right direction. Vocational training is essential to bridging the skills gap, offering practical skills that align with industry requirements. Programmes such as the Industrial Training Fund (ITF) and the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) have been pivotal in providing vocational education and training for Nigerians for decades, providing much-needed training in areas such as welding, plumbing, electrical installation, and ICT. The ITF’s National Industrial Skills Development Programme (NISDP) has trained over 300,000 young people in various trades since its inception, with graduates of these programmes often starting their own businesses or finding employment opportunities previously beyond reach—in both instances, contributing to economic development.

By equipping individuals with the skills needed to start their own businesses, vocational training helps reduce unemployment and stimulate economic activity at the grassroots level. For example, the NDE has also created various schemes to support young women in acquiring skills and starting micro-enterprises; these programmes have significantly contributed to job creation and poverty alleviation in various communities.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also play a significant role in vocational training. For example, the Skills Acquisition and Entrepreneurship Development (SAED) programme by the NYSC has empowered thousands of young Nigerians with skills in areas like agriculture, fashion design, and information technology.

The numbers make the points for us. According to the NDE, c. 40 percent of vocational training graduates secure employment within six months of completing their programmes, underscoring the importance of vocational education in addressing unemployment and underemployment in Nigeria.

Technology is transforming education in Nigeria, providing new avenues for learning and skill development. Digital learning tools and platforms, such as uLesson, TopSet Tutoring, and Tuteria, offer students access to quality education materials and tutoring services, irrespective of their location. Supporting data indicates the growing adoption of digital tools, with a 2020 Statista survey showing 36 percent of Nigerian internet users engaged in online education and training, underscoring the shift towards digital learning.

Despite progress, several challenges hinder the improvement of education and vocational training in Nigeria. Funding remains a critical issue, with education expenditure accounting for only 6 percent of the national budget in 2021, well below the UNESCO recommended 15-20 percent. Infrastructure deficits, such as inadequate classrooms and learning materials, also impede effective learning. The shortage of qualified teachers, exacerbated by poor salaries and working conditions, further affects the quality of education.

Addressing these challenges requires a multi-faceted approach. Increased funding for education is paramount, ensuring that schools are adequately equipped and staffed. Public-private partnerships can play a crucial role in supplementing government efforts and driving educational reform.

Vocational training programmes could play a pivotal role and need to be expanded and aligned with industry needs, ensuring that graduates possess relevant skills. The involvement of the private sector in curriculum development and training can enhance the employability of vocational training graduates. Additionally, vocational training enhances the overall productivity and competitiveness of the Nigerian economy. Skilled workers are more efficient and capable of driving innovation and technological adoption in their respective fields. This, in turn, could attract foreign investment towards improving Nigeria’s economic profile.

Investment in digital infrastructure and teacher training is also essential to harnessing the potential of technology in education. Expanding internet access, particularly in rural areas, will ensure that all students can benefit from digital learning tools.

Overall, collaboration is required between stakeholders across government, the private sector, international organisations, and communities to create a sustainable and inclusive education system. Initiatives like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4, which aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all, provide a framework for collective action.

Improving education and vocational training is crucial for addressing the skills gap and supporting economic growth in Nigeria. By investing in education, embracing technology, and expanding vocational training, Nigeria can develop a skilled workforce ready to meet the demands of a dynamic and diversified economy. The upward journey begins with a commitment to education and workforce development, laying the foundation for sustained growth and prosperity.

Samuel Adeleke Adelaja: Head, Partnerships at Airtel Business Africa; Investment Director at Airtel Africa.