"If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.”

By Tobi

With a population growing faster than its economy at 2.6 percent; economic stagnation fuelled by a deeply ingrained culture of corruption and neopatrimonialism, and resultantly, a dismal level of investment in social infrastructure, a stark cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over the growth trajectory of Nigeria. As an enthusiast and undeterred believer in the great story of Nigeria, I would love to beat my chest, as a form of consolation or perhaps assertion, and ascertain that sunny days are ahead. However, reality - in addition to the fact that this is not my field, in literal terms, and I, as an individual, do not possess to economic power to solely catalyse inclusive growth -  hums a different anthem, with youth unemployment in Nigeria predicted to rise by 13.1 percent by the end of 2016. Not only is this detrimental to the quality of living, stability, and development of Nigeria, it likewise appears to be a ticking time bomb, and a potential demographic disaster.

Undoubtedly, high rates of unemployment remain an issue to contend with, nationally. The World Bank however warns that underemployment - that is, the mismatch in skills for highly skilled jobs -  is likely to have equivocal effects on the long run development of Nigeria. More so, as urban peripheries like Lagos continue to evolve into new knowledge economies, and spearhead the economic progress, the skills required in order to capitalise on the opportunities awakening are increasingly cognitive rather than manual. With a system where Education in Nigeria is more theoretical, and students are neither stretched nor challenged to think critically, there exists a wide gulf between the skills acquired in Tertiary Education in Nigeria, and the skills required for competitiveness and employability; thereby facilitating the perpetuation of low-productivity employment, and consequently, prolonging cycles of poverty, retarding economic growth, and increasing the economic burden.

There is therefore a pressing need to revolutionise the provision and quality of Education in Nigeria, and ensure that students are equipped with the 'right skills' in order to yield high levels of income, productivity and national growth. True to its status as the economic hub of Nigeria and arguably its hype, Lagos State seems to have taken the plunge in addressing the employment and employability challenges with its initiative - Ready Set Work - driven by the Ministry of Education. Currently in its initial phase with a sample size of 500, the programme provides intensive 13 weeks training, internship and apprenticeship opportunities for final year students in government owned Universities in Lagos, and is expected to be scaled up to 4500-5000 students each year.

Seemingly impressive, no?

On reading about it, I was stringing together a medal for the Lagos State Government just for realising the need to tackle underemployment, and further, for implementing the initiative. Maintaining an open mind, I joined a Google hangout session with the Special Adviser to the Governor on Education,  Mr Obafela Bank-Olemoh, last Thursday to learn more about RSW. Mr Bank-Olemoh shared a few of initiatives planned for 2017 including a digital library, CODE Lagos (similar to ccHUB) and Lagos State Project 350 and expressed a continued commitment to “growing our graduates, because they are the future” of Nigeria. What stood out for me, however, was the message being passed across to Nigerian youths - who, let’s admit, are rather entitled - on the need to give their best during the selection process - which he emphasised is random, strictly meritocratic and left to the discretion of the private companies in partnership with RSW. Referring to competition in the "real world"as the survival of the fittest, he further discusses measures adopted to effectuate discipline, and a shift in the mindsets and habits of graduates, equipping them with skills to thrive nationally, and equally, on an international scale.

Beguilingly, he wrapped up the session with a Chinese proverb which says:

“If you want 1 year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees.

If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.”

These plans are undoubtedly commendable! They are however the responsibility of the government - the medal was for effort, and not the initiative itself. Given that projects often end with the tenure of the government in power, there are concerns as to the sustainability of the projects in subsequent administrations, and consequently, the possibility of “growing people”. The success of these initiatives are therefore contingent on their dissociation from a name or face, and an adherence to sustained investment, and maintenance. Similarly, there are questions as to the absorption of the excess supply of students. What happens after the internships? Are there enough permanent jobs available? A business friendly environment is paramount for firms to invest and, create employment opportunities. The onus lies on the government.

The Ready Set Work programme will inevitably induce an influx of in-migrants and immigrants from rural areas to Lagos in search of educational opportunities, further propelling urban growth in Lagos. Although this may yield revenue for the government in terms of the fees, this could not only widen interstate inequality but also, exert an upward pressure on the infrastructure and fiscal capacity of the government to  adequately invest in the instruments of the programme, and may also have implications on the tutor to student ratio, further threatening the quality of Education and training received by the students. It is imperative for other states to step their Education game up, and invest in their human capital through similar projects, in order to retain students in their respective states. Collective effort is thus optimal.