Date Published: 07/02/10
White Collar Jobs and Unemployment in Nigeria By JERRY EHANMO
It is no more news that the rising level of unemployment in Nigeria is slowly becoming an epidemic. Scores of graduates are being churned out of our ailing tertiary institutions on a daily basis to face the stark reality of an unaccommodating society. The lacklustre response by the Nigerian marketplace to our university graduates is traceable to obvious handicaps. The quality of the average Nigerian graduate is well short of industry standards and requirements. Human resource professionals regularly bemoan the intellectual capacity of many graduates seeking to fill vacant positions in their organizations. Most of these graduates demonstrate a considerable lack of the basic skills and qualities necessary to thrive in the workplace. It is somewhat shocking to hear stories of graduates who fail to meet simple literacy standards (reading and writing) or do not possess requisite IT skills that are crucial in today’s modern workplace. It only serves to demonstrate the failings of our school system that they managed to obtain a university degree. In a corrupt society like ours, it is not too difficult to imagine how they were able to manage this feat. Another handicap is the limited availability of jobs in the formal economy given our slow industrial development and other economic shortcomings. The demand for jobs by graduates has far outstripped the capacity of the formal economy to provide such jobs. Interestingly, statistics shows that the informal economy constitutes about 70% of the Nigerian Economy. So the burning question is why do the majority of Nigerian graduates pursue jobs in a formal economy that clearly lacks the capacity to meet their yearnings? This shortsightedness is easily tied to the social status that white collar jobs in the formal economy confer on its holders. Nigerian graduates albeit with their poor employability will rather engage in fruitless, time wasting and sometimes endless pursuits of these white collar jobs than seek productive informal sector jobs. The burden of societal expectations on graduates has caused many to wallow in idleness and sometimes to engage in ill-advised criminal activities like advance fee fraud. Aside the social burdens, graduates are less inclined to engage in business activities that are more labour intensive and skill based, which are prevalent in the informal sector. They would prefer to wear a smart suit and tie and sit behind a desk in an air-conditioned office, where their take home pay can barely take them home, career progression is limited and favoritism is rife, learning opportunities are illusory etc. Is this pure laziness or intellectual deficiency? Your guess is as good as mine. From personal research, the reality is that the informal sector in Nigeria today offers greater rewards financially, physically and professionally. The relative immunity of the Nigerian economy to the global financial meltdown was attributed to the size of its informal economy. A recent World Bank study also stated that our greatest natural resource is not oil but our human capital endowment. A significant proportion of our teeming population is between the ages of 18-45, a highly productive stock if well mobilized and utilized. The study also hinted at the preference for white collar jobs in the formal sectors like banks, oil companies, telcos, insurance companies as one of the reasons for our stunted growth and distorted economy. Clearly, a transition from the pre-colonialist notion of white collarism to dignity of labor irrespective of job title and specifications needs to be encouraged to serve as a catalyst for growth. The informal sector will appreciate an influx of the educated class. This should provide the following benefits. First, it will address the issue of unemployment. Second, it will reduce the burden on the formal sector and contribute to economic stability. Third, it will promote better pay and training opportunities in the formal sector. Fourth, it will transform the informal and accelerate its integration with the informal sector. Finally, it will serve as a catalyst for economic growth. To illustrate how this works, the transportation sector which consists of cab drivers and commercial bus drivers is largely dominated by the uneducated class, which explains their unruly road manners, bad customer service, poor maintenance culture, and violation of all traffic codes. However, if there was a scheme that encouraged unemployed graduates to participate in the transport sector, things would be a lot different. They could be given cars or buses through hire purchase agreements with a management company overseeing their operations and activities. The management company should also provide proper driver training, car maintenance training, customer service training, accounting training et al to ensure accountability and sustainability. Instead of being unemployed, the graduate now has a car, a job, more skills, and a greater level of personal responsibility which is absent in most white collar jobs. The average commercial driver in Nigeria earns a lot more than the employed graduate in a bank or insurance company but their social status is at the base of the pyramid because we live in a society where there is little or no dignity in labor. This perverse symmetry is emblematic of the flaws of the Nigerian society. The associated benefit of this scheme is that this will invariably encourage informal sector participants to actively pursue educational qualifications when everyone begins to prefer a graduate commercial driver. Another example in the automobile sector is the car mechanics. There are a huge number of engineering graduates with zero abilities due to the preponderance of theory based degrees which has eroded their employability. Consequently only a handful is able to secure gainful employment while the rest languish in unemployment or are forced to seek careers in other industries or fields of endeavor. It might seem radical or unacceptable in our society, but a scheme that seeks to co-opt such unemployed engineering graduates into the automobile engineering field should produce bountiful rewards. Such graduates are made to understudy experienced car mechanics for a given period, and given their academic foundation they would be expected to acquire the relevant practical skills easily and develop greater professionalism and stronger skill set upon completion of their training. Then they can be given modern car maintenance tools and equipments on a hire purchase agreement and given support to establish high quality car service and maintenance businesses. The same twin benefits will accrue as mentioned earlier with the transport sector. This model can easily be replicated across the informal sector and should give the economy the much needed boost that the government and the relatively small formal sector have failed to provide. It will also reduce unemployment, promote education for all and sundry, increase professionalism in all sectors, promote dignity of labor and help midwife the birth of a vibrant and sustainable indigenous private sector. The failings of our educational system still needs to be urgently addressed to improve the quality of our graduates but in the interim we need to cater to the unemployable graduates that litter our streets, homes and even offices.
By JERRY EHANMO, CENTRE FOR PUBLIC POLICY ALTERNATIVES, IKOYI, Lagos