• Thursday, July 25, 2024
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There’s talent in Nigeria, you’re just hiring wrong

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Like most people today, I get most of my news off Twitter. In my case, I use Twitter to feel the pulse of things happening in Nigeria, particularly in the technology and entrepreneurship spaces.

There is a notion, held by many employers in these spaces as well as outside, that (employee) talent is hard to find in Nigeria and Nigerian universities are largely useless. I couldn’t disagree with this more.

I graduated from the University of Ibadan with First Class Honours in Mechanical Engineering at the end of the 2013 academic year. That year, we had 9 First Class graduates out of a class of 42; to my knowledge, this is the most First-Class graduates produced from an engineering class since the university’s inception. These people, eight men and one lady, are some of the most intelligent people I have ever met in my life.

None of them currently work for a start-up: three are maintenance engineers with Dangote, OLAM, and another company, three are finishing their PhD at Cranfield, AUC, and Howard, two of us are in the manufacturing industry in Canada, and the last one is an associate with McKinsey.

Post-NYSC we applied to different employers. In my case, I was a little picky as I wanted to work in product design and there just weren’t enough companies to apply to. Also, oil companies were not hiring at the time (the oil price was tanking), I had interned with Bristow Helicopters and Schlumberger as an undergraduate but none were hiring when I graduated. I ended up applying to, and interviewing with, OLAM International and Sahara Energy.

I had envisioned an interview as a discussion about skills and abilities, but I was wrong. If you have a First-Class Honours, your interviewers want to show you that you’re not very bright and find things you don’t know so they can say “and you got a first class?”. One interviewer spent five minutes interrogating me about the combustion properties of methane and butane gases.

Sahara Energy was particularly interesting, for the interview they asked us to bring the jersey that the Nigerian team wore to the USA 1994 World Cup. And on the eve of the interview, at 9.53pm to be precise, they asked us to wear certain colours: a touch of red for men and a touch of black or yellow for ladies. I lived in Ibadan at the time and was already in Lagos for the interview when they sent that email.

Much smaller companies — run by entrepreneurs — are worse. I know of one where one of my former classmates worked that the starting salary was N35,000 but the company was doing large scale building services engineering design for hotel chains in Victoria Island and Ikoyi. The usual excuse? That new graduates are “still learning”.

A First-Class Honours degree does not mean a person is intelligent, but actually that the person is a fast learner. It is literally a certification that in a short time (14 weeks, a typical semester) the person can master (greater than 70 or 80 percent, depending on the A- grade) a new module.

Now, I can’t speak for all engineering departments in Nigeria, but the UI programme is really good. In fourth year, we took a compulsory Advanced Strength of Materials course, that content is taught at a Masters level abroad. The curriculum is wide on purpose, because graduates go on to do so many different things and jobs are not as available as they are abroad. We take an Engineering Economics course — for some people as early as third year.

Entrepreneurs need to know that there is talent, but these talents know their worth and demand it. You’re competing with multinationals who can pay better and have more intelligent staff to complement the new ones. And the interviews are fairer at these companies, and largely about the candidate’s potential — they are not there to defend their resumes.

The best interview I ever had? We talked about coffee table books and how nobody actually reads them while they are waiting. I got the job.

Chuma Asuzu

Asuzu is a researcher and engineer. His writing focuses on technology in Africa and has appeared in OZY, The Prepared and Africa Is A Country