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Nze Sylva’s Corner: Ready-Set-Work as a Model for Changing the Conversation on Education

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Figures from the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics and other sources show a wide employment deficit with the products of tertiary institutions far outpacing available jobs. On the other hand, and quite ironically, while unemployment figures remain so high, availability of skills remain the major challenge of many private sector organisations. The usual complaint is that the graduates that are produced are simply not suitable for the available jobs.

One will wonder, is it a case of the barber not knowing his job or the clipper simply being blunt. Products of Nigerian tertiary institutions pass through a curriculum that is set in the past. You find professors, using lecture notes that they used twenty years ago to teach students today. In simple terms, the education we are giving today is for the most part dated and does not prepare graduates for today’s world of work nor provide them with the skills to be suitable for it.

Many commentators have long held that to tackle youth unemployment effectively, we must reform our approach to education. Universities need to transform themselves into places where young people can, not only study and take exams, but learn from doing. Educational institutions must provide youths with real world experiences that are relevant, with opportunities for practical skills development and very importantly, entrepreneurial capacity building.

This is no novel idea. It is pure common sense and one that is openly espoused at workshops, conferences and even the pages of newspapers by both educators and government officials. Yet, as with most things Nigerian, nothing really gets to be done. It is thus refreshing and I dare say reassuring when one finds an example of a government programme geared towards doing something in this regard as can be seen in the Lagos State Government’s Ready-Set-Work programme.

I had followed the programme since its launch last year, keen on seeing how far the state goes with it and if it will be one of those flash in the pan government projects aimed at momentary political gains and providing ‘money for the boys.’ With the recent launch of the second season of the programme, I can admit that much of my earlier scepticism has waned. I think, the programme, if sustained, has the potential of being a big game changer for the youths of the country.

For those who might not be familiar with the programme, Ready-Set-Work is an employability and entrepreneurship program aimed at preparing final year students for immediate entry into the workforce as employees and employers of labour by equipping them with market-aligned knowledge, soft skills, business tools, and a mindset reorientation to the world of work.  It is an initiative of the Lagos State Ministry of Education in partnership with a network of stakeholders including Corporate Nigeria, Lagos state based tertiary institutions and training partners and is aimed at addressing the gaps in the skill set of graduates of tertiary institutions in Lagos state and seeks to curb the current high level of graduate unemployment in the State.

The approach is simple: Final year students apply online to be part of the programme. Those selected go through thirteen weeks of intensive training in work-based and entrepreneurial skills acquisition. It is either you are on the employability track or the entrepreneurial track. Then they have mentors — CEO of participating organisations — come in to give them talks and interact with them. At the end of the period, those on the employability tract are interviewed for a chance to enjoy six months internship opportunities in these organisations with a very strict appraisal of their progress during that period. Those on the entrepreneurial tract pitch for seed funding and incubated for a six-month period during which they are to deliver a proof of concept on their business idea.

Last year, the pilot edition had 500 students of three Lagos owned tertiary institutions. With 197 of these enjoying the internship and apprenticeship opportunity with partner organisations including PwC (Price Waterhouse Coopers), GTBank Plc., FCMB, Total, Access Bank Plc., SystemSpecs etc. This year I gather that the aim is to have 12,000 students on the programme with participating schools now expanded to six and a teacher training tract included in the scheme.

I attended a press conference for the launch of the 2017 edition and it was inspiring to listen to the testimonies of some of the 2016 set. The passion and enthusiasm with which they relived their experience was moving and you could tell that the project has had quite a huge impact on them and their future.

In my thinking, Ready-Set-Work provides a good model of how educators, government and the private sector can partner in expanding the relevance of a degree for graduates and supporting their learning experience in a value adding and practical way. It is quite modest early steps yet but I am hoping that other states of the federation can begin to also adopt this model and launch programmes similar to this for us to escape the time bomb that is set to explode in the not too distant future as regards unemployment and employability in Nigeria.

Having said this, one continues to hope for a revolution in our education sector when the curriculums will be adopted to present day realities and outdated concepts (and the teachers of same) eased out of the system. This has to happen if we are ever to become a nation to be taken seriously.

Fiction writer, op-ed columnist, social commentator. Sylva lives in Lagos Nigeria

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