Bridging Nigeria’s Skills Gap Through Internship

In February 2008, former Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN Governor, Professor Chukwuma Soludo raised an alarm that 60% of Nigerian university graduates were unemployable. He did not say how he arrived by that statistics but he insisted it was 60% and stood by his assertion in several fora. Many people, especially in Nigeria’s ivory towers, did not believe him; others vilified him, while some others simply felt disappointed. This provoked debates at the time and called to question the quality of our education. But nothing significant was done either by policy makers or government agencies to address the challenge. But indeed the challenge is real, Nigerian graduates continue to find it difficult to find jobs, sometimes because the jobs were simply not there but most of the time; it is because the skill levels were grossly insufficient. Today, most employers will tell you that their greatest challenge is hiring the right people with the right kind of skills.

Many employers have devised several strategies to make up for the skills gap and create productive workforce. Some through graduate trainee programmes, others, by insisting on certain years of experience requirements.

However, a new phenomenon on bridging the skills gap is strongly emerging in Nigeria. And it deserves serious attention. Internship is the name of the new game. An internship, according to Wikijob, is an opportunity offered by an employer to potential employees, called interns, to work at a firm for a fixed, limited period of time. Interns are usually undergraduates or students, and most internships last for any length of time between one week and 12 months.

It is not as if internship is new in Nigeria. It has always been there and undergraduates take advantage of it to gain practical knowledge of their courses of study and in the process gain the requisite skills needed to secure a job after graduation. However, over time, internship became unpopular. The trouble began when employers became reluctant to take interns.

I remember, during my undergraduate days, when it was time for internship. I had already made up my mind where to intern. It was my favourite newspaper. It was one of Nigeria’s best newspapers, with excellent editorial quality and I was in love with it. So, upon arriving Lagos, I went straight to their office somewhere in Ikeja to present my letter. But to my chagrin, I could not get past the company’s reception. I had been mistaken. My beloved newspaper company does not take interns.

That was the beginning of my troubles. Getting another place to intern was a thug of war. I called all my friends, visited all the national dailies in Lagos and submitted application. It was same story, no interns needed. And time was fast running out on me. It was not until I ran into one of my class mates, who knew someone who knew someone, who knew one of the editors in one of the dailies that I was eventually accepted. And that was where my first hand experience in journalism started, a place where my career would later kick off much later after I left school.

Many students today would give up after several attempts at finding a place for internship and an opportunity for a glimpse into that critically required skills training, lost.

Most companies who accepted interns also did not help matters. On many occasions, no stipend is offered and in some occasions, supervisors are not even assigned and the interns return back to school as ignorant as they left. Some schools did not also emphasise much on internship and did not make extra efforts to help place their students in organisations where they may acquire the necessary skills. That was how internship fell into disrepute.

But sometime in 2015, a start-up called Stutern, launched in Lagos to help students find internship position in organisations that offered them. That was a huge relief for most students. To extend their reach, they went into partnership with one of Nigeria’s top online job firms, Jobberman. The most beautiful thing is that Stutern only links students with organisations who offer stipends, thereby making internship more attractive. Today, that feature has made internship positions more competitive as full graduates also apply for the same jobs. This is one of the best ways Nigeria can begin to bridge her skill gaps and solve her unemployment problems.

Internships provide immense mutual benefits for both the employers and the interns. The interns take full advantages of the opportunity of working closely with already skilled employees, thereby gaining hands-on experience needed to thrive in the labour market and imbibe the corporate work culture. This is an experience which always comes handy for the intern and makes for increased productivity for the benefit of the employer. The employers, other hand get the opportunity to pick from the best of talents and at very young age, at little or no cost. More so, the necessary bonding needed to bring out the best from an employee is usually created at this stage with the interns.

Hotels.ng demonstrated the efficacy of this approach recently when he organised a remote internship programme for students across the country. It was a fully paid and remote software development internship. 170 interns registered for the program which was targeted at building aspiring developers for the real world and from the first day, they faced intense training, both theoretical and practical. During the course of the program, the interns were made to work on high social and economic impact projects.

The programme was so successful that it gave birth to a locations API, a solution that will redefine e-commerce in Nigeria as it attempts to solve the addressing and logistics problem faced by all e-commerce operators in the country.

I visited Hotels’ office during the send off party for these interns and it became clear that the strategy had worked after I saw the level of bonding between the company’s founder and CEO, Mark Essien and the interns. They were a team. At the end, Essien said the company had made a decision to retain some of the interns. Others would move on to make a successful career in other companies while some others would be inspired to start ventures of their own because they have been equipped with the right skills; the kind of skills that are never taught in the classrooms.

One cannot overemphasize the importance of internship if we must raise Nigeria’s skills level, not only to bolster productivity but to also tackle the unemployment menace. But we must get the approach right. The right incentive must be provided. For instance, in Hotels.ng’s case, a stipend was offered even though the interns worked remotely. There must be a proper supervision structure in place. During the hotels programme, the team was coordinated by Hotels’ veteran programmer who also possessed the necessary leadership skills. He made sure that the interns took their assignments seriously while providing the needed guidance.

The federal government of Nigeria through the Ministry of Education must go back to review the internship scheme of Nigerian universities. Today, most universities place less emphasis on internship and students who even attempt to go these route face lots of obstacles and get discouraged in the process. There must be a policy to encourage employers to admit interns into their organisations. If it demands making provision for incentives for them, including offering tax rebates, it would go a long way to help. We cannot continue to decry high unemployment rates when millions being churned out of our higher institutions cannot do the available jobs.

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