Technical and Vocational Education: Key to Nigeria's Development

By Victor E. Dike

Technical and vocational education (TVE) has been an integral part of national development strategies in many societies because of its impact on productivity and economic development. Despite its contributions the leaders of Nigeria have not given this aspect of education the attention it deserves. And that is one of the reasons for the nation's underdevelopment. This article focuses on the dearth of skilled technical manpower in Nigeria and argues that technical education holds the key to national development.

Technical education "is a planned program of courses and learning experiences that begins with exploration of career options, supports basic academic and life skills, and enables achievement of high academic standards, leadership, preparation for industry-defined work, and advanced and continuing education."2 And vocational education and training "prepares learners for careers that are based in manual or practical activities, traditionally non-academic and totally related to a specific trade, occupation or vocation." In other words, it is an "education designed to develop occupational skills."3 Vocational and technical education gives individuals the skills to "live, learn and work as a productive citizen in a global society."

The provision of vocational and technical schools has a long history. Before the Industrial Revolution (between 1750 and 1830) the home and the "apprenticeship system" were the principal sources of vocational education. But societies were later forced by the decline of handwork and specialization of occupational functions to develop institutions of vocational education (Duffy, 1967).4 Manual training that involves general instruction in the use of hand tools was said to have developed initially in Scandinavia (c.1866). However, vocational education became popular in the elementary schools in the United States after 1880 and developed into courses in industrial training, bookkeeping, stenography, and allied commercial work in both public and private institutions. As the Columbia Encyclopedia (2001) noted some of the early private trade schools in the United States include Cooper Union (1859) and Pratt Institute (1887), the Hampton Institute (1868) and Tuskegee Institute (1881). The agricultural high school (1888) of the University of Minnesota was the first regularly established public vocational secondary school that introduced extensive public instruction in agriculture.5

The number of public and private vocational schools has greatly increased in the United States since 1900. There was an impetus on vocational education during World War II (1939-1945) when the armed services had great need for technicians that the civilian world could not supply. There was a further upsurge on vocational training from the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (the G. I. Bill of Rights), which allowed World War II veterans to receive tuition and subsistence during extended vocational training. There was also the Manpower Development Training Act (1962), the Vocational Education Act (1963), and the Vocational Education Amendments (1968) and the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Act (1984). These programs help to improve the nation's workforce and ensure that vocational training is available for economically (and physically) challenged youths.

The United States is not the only society that appreciates skills acquired through vocational and technical education. The Dutch school system is said to pay attention to "high standards in mathematics and the provision of vocational education at ages 14-16 for a third of all pupils, and widespread vocational education at 16 +."6 And secondary (high) schools in many other development-conscious nations have vocational centers that offer vocational training for lifelong trade together with general academic studies. For instance, India and the "Asian Tigers" could not have become what they are without massive investment in technical education. However, because of recent changes in world economy many vocational and technical schools have shifted emphasis to training in the computers and information technology.

While technical and vocational education has continued to thrive in many societies Nigeria has neglected this aspect of education. Consequently, the society lacks skilled technicians: bricklayers, carpenters, painters and auto mechanics; laboratory and pharmacy technicians, electrical/electronic technicians and skilled vocational nurses, etc). The hospitals are no longer a place where people go to get their ailments treated, but a place they go and die. Tales abound of how people die during surgeries and out of minor ailments. And the half-baked roadside mechanics in the society cause more harm to vehicles when contracted to service vehicles, and because of poor training some of the commercial drivers have sent many people to their early death. The shabby performance of Nigeria's house builders (mason/bricklayers, etc) is no longer news. For that individuals with important projects now use competent technicians from neighboring countries. This is not to mention the havoc the poorly trained technicians have caused in the power sector. Nigeria's spotty electricity supply is the greatest bottleneck to national development. And toiling all day in the field with knives, hoes, and shovels would not feed the nation's 140 million people. Mechanized farming requires technical skills that could be obtained in technical and vocational schools.

Every facet of the economy has been affected by lack of skilled technicians. The financial sector lacks technicians to regulate the banks and to develop financial software to properly tackle the rising fraudulent activities in the banking sector. Without security development is impossible in a society; no nation can sustain its democracy if the citizens lack confidence in the police. The police violate the citizens' human and civil rights and lack forensic laboratory and fingerprint technicians to conduct criminal investigations. And because of lack of tools to track down criminals there was a shameful episode recently in the society where the police paraded a goat/sheep as a thief. It is only in Nigeria that a human being could transform into an animal. And due to poor training military officers are known to beat up the citizens who challenge their powers; the case of Miss Uzoma Okere and some naval officers is a case in point The danger posed by environmental pollution and fake drugs is alarming; the less educated in the society lack the skill to manage AIDS, cancer and diabetes among other serious health problems. One wonders what the nation's health minister and the 36 state health commissioners are doing to tackle these issues. Any person who still thinks that leadership is not a major cause of Nigeria's under-developed status is on the wrong side of history.

The neglect of technical education is socially and economically injurious because it is robbing the nation the contributions the graduates would make on national development. For that Nigeria is today wearing the toga of a poor state. Although technical and vocational education seem deficient in ‘citizenship or leadership training' (Friedman 1982)7 it provides students with "life skills" (Alwasilah, February 11, 2002)8 to become productive entrepreneurs as it engenders creative and innovative ideas, enlarge the economic pie, and increase personal freedom. Most of the so-called "expatriate engineers" who are being paid millions of dollars to build Nigeria's roads and bridges are graduates of technical and vocational colleges. Yet the leaders do not take technical institutions seriously.

Nigeria's current preoccupation with university education reduces economic opportunities of those who are more oriented toward work than academe. Not everyone needs a university education. Awarding licenses to greedy organizations and individuals to establish private universities that are not even as equipped as some of the technical and vocational schools in the United States and other advanced nations cannot develop the society. Because of the sorry state of the nation's tertiary institutions many of the graduates lack "employability" skills, which would easily be acquired from technical and vocational colleges. But who would employ them if everyone is a university graduate?

It is no longer news that the nation's youth unemployment rate has been shooting up the sky. The federal government recently acknowledged that about 80 per cent of Nigeria's youths are unemployed and 10 per cent underemployed. And the Minister of Education, Sam Egwu, recently noted that the poor quality of graduates is worrisome.9But what is he doing to arrest the situation? Others have urged the youths to become entrepreneurs and good citizens. But it is not enough to ask the youths to become "entrepreneurs" and reject "social vices" or to be "patriotic" without providing them with skills and financial resources for self-employment or for the public servants to lead by good examples. As the Roman Historian, Plutarch (AD 46-120?) had noted "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled." Given their corrupt and greedy lifestyles Nigeria's leaders do not seem to care about integrity or moral values. They are good at predicting the future without creating it. As Peter Drucker has observed "If you want to predict the future, create it."

Like unemployment, poverty is ravaging the society. It has vastly been documented that more than 80 per cent of Nigerians live on less than one dollar per day. There should be some form of school-work-based learning incorporated in schools in Nigeria as integral part of national development strategy (Dike, July-September 2006).10Empowering the people with technical skills would enhance their productivity and national development. Nigeria's poverty alleviation programs have been ineffective because of lack of skills training facilities and social services. Giving money to the poor who cannot manage their own lives to set up small business is like pouring water in a bucket with holes.

To improve workers welfare the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) and other affiliated unions should establish technical and vocational training centers in the local government areas where the workers could acquire some employability skills. In today's knowledge-derived and crisis-ridden global economy one of the ways to spur the economy is to empower the people to tackle the developmental challenges facing the nation. The unions, including the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP), should push for increased funding for technical education as part of the current economic reform programs. Calling out the workers for industrial actions is not the only way to fight for their welfare.

The design of Nigeria's educational system is flawed. The neglect of technical education is an obstacle to national development. Not every one needs a university education. In Nigeria technical degrees are regarded as inferior to regular academic degrees. But in advanced nations those with technical degrees are highly regarded. Individuals with years of field experience work in tandem with those with academic degrees. In fact, the worth of every worker depends on the person's skills and knowledge, and not on the stack of academic degrees one has. Nigeria must learn to blend theory and practice in its education because theories alone cannot serve any useful purpose. The nation's technical schools should be brought to international standard by employing teachers with field experience in the subject areas and experienced and professional administrators to run technical institutions. As obtained in the developed nations the technical graduates should be thoroughly certified before they could work as technicians.

Nigeria is terribly lagging behind in preparing its labor force for the 21st century economy. Adult education is also imperative as it would assist those who could not complete their primary and secondary education to acquire basic skills, and for the retired, who constitute greater part of the unemployed group in the society, to retrain for a second career. No nation would make any meaningful socioeconomic stride without well-equipped technical and vocational institutions. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have noted that revitalizing this important sector is among the ways to improve economic opportunities for the youths. The National Board for Technical Education (NBTE) and teachers in this area should take up the campaign for more funds for technical and vocational education and to launder its image.

It cannot be overemphasized that technical education is the engine for economic growth. No nation can fight a war without an army. In the same token Nigeria cannot develop without well-equipped technical and vocational institutions. In fact, it is the missing link in Nigeria's development policy (Dike, March 2, 2005).11Because of poor training and ineffective institutions Nigeria suffers from low productivity. But the progress of any society lies in the productivity of its citizens. Higher productivity gives a nation advantage of economies of scale and lowers the costs of production and prices of goods and services. Nigeria should begin now to take very seriously investment in education and skill training as no nation can compete effectively in the emerging global market place with poorly educated and unskilled workers. The leading factors of production in the emerging global economy are said to be technology, knowledge, creativity and innovation.

The major policy speeches for Yar'Ardua (and his army of sycophants) these days revolve around his unrealistic aspiration of transforming Nigeria into one of the first 20 largest global economies by the year 2020. And he recently assembled a 405-member panel to realize the project.12The political leaders can make all the noise they want about transforming Nigeria into an industrialized nation, but they should be warned that rhetoric cannot make the society an economic super-power. Yar'Ardua's Vision 2020 and the Seven-point Agenda will remain a paper tiger without technical and vocational education being a major part of the strategy. Any person who thinks that a country that lacks skilled technical manpower and cannot generate electricity for more than three or four hours in a day, and unable to fix its roads and bridges could be transformed into an industrialized nation in less than eleven years today must be living in a different planet. No society has ever become an industrialized nation without technological capability.  

Nigeria can become an economic power-house (and realize its visions) only if proper attention is given to education and technological development and promotes and rewards creativity, and channel its material and human resources to productive use. The leaders must recognize the relevance of technical and vocational education in national development and adopt and adapt what works in developed nations. The resources being wasted in the on-going false re-branding campaign should have been used to re-brand the nation's education sector. No amount of rhetoric (or fanciful slogan) would solve Nigeria's socio-political and economic problems. The leaders could salvage Nigeria's image by re-branding their mentality and doing the right thing: tackle corruption, reform the electoral system and fix the dilapidated institutions. Thus, without a fundamental shift in values, beliefs and thinking, and without technological capability, Nigeria will continue to dream of becoming a ‘Great Nation.'  

Notes and References

1. Victor E. Dike: "Vocational Education: Missing link in Nigeria's Development Policy;" online: http://www.nigeriavillagesquare.com/articles/victor-dike/vocational-education-missing-link-in-nigeria-s-development-p-2.html, March 2, 2005.

2. Career and Technical Education: Washington- Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction: http://www.k12.wa.us/CareerTechEd/

3. Vocational Education: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocational_education; online-

www.dest.gov.au/sectors/training_skills/policy_issues_reviews/key_issues/nts/glo/utoz.htm.

4. N. F. Duffy (ed.): Essays on Apprenticeship, 1967.

5. The Columbia Encyclopedia- (6th edition)-Columbia University Press, 2001.

6. Bart van Ark: "Vocational education and productivity in the Netherlands and Britain;" National Institute Economic Review, January 5, 1992.

7. Milton Friedman: Capitalism and Freedom; University of Chicago Press, 2nd edition, 1982.

8. Chaedar A. Alwasilah: "Vocational education must provide students with life skills, The Jakarta Post, Feb 11, 2002.

9. ThisDay: "Shun Social Vices, Youths Told," March 17, 2009; Daily Trust, "80% of Nigerian Youths Unemployed-FG," November 26, 2008.

10. Victor E. Dike: "Youth Unemployment in Nigeria: The Relevance of Vocational and Technical Education;" in NESG Economic Indicators, July-September 2006, Volume 12, No 3, pp.25-29; 5. Vanguard: "Neglect of technical, vocational education increases youth unemployment-DON," December 23, 2004; Vanguard: "UNESCO tackles decline in technical, vocational education," November 25, 2004.

11. Victor E. Dike: "Vocational Education: Missing link in Nigeria's Development Policy;" online: http://www.nigeriavillagesquare.com/articles/victor-dike/vocational-education-missing-link-in-nigeria-s-development-p-2.html; March 2, 2005.

12. Punch: "Vision 20-20 is FG's craziest concept– Sagay," February 17, 2009; Daily Trust: "Yar'adua inaugurates Vision 2020 business support group today," February 16, 2009.

Victor E. Dike is the author of Leadership without a Moral Purpose: a Critical Analysis of Nigeria and the Obasanjo Administration, 2003-2007 (forthcoming)