Find Work Before Work Finds You
Musings on the need to gain work experience whilst schooling
I remember my very first job after secondary school.
It was in a video club that had just opened a few houses away from home. I had seen the owners, a husband and wife, come by a few times as the place was being furnished. It had crossed my mind that they would need to hire someone to manage the place, and I badly wanted to be that someone. I had been home for about a month, and I wanted to make myself useful. I summoned courage and approached them one day, stating my intention to work for them, and I was offered the job!
I resumed the next day.
I was responsible for signing up members, recommending movies, collecting payments, record keeping, and keeping the place tidy. Eventually, I was also tasked with buying blank tapes from Oshodi market so we could dub new movies to add to the club’s inventory. I spent about three months on the job and I had a good time. I got to watch a lot of movies because I had to make recommendations to members. I earned my first salary, and this made me feel very responsible.
My second job was on a movie set, just about a year later, before I got into university. I got the gig through my cousin, Sis T, who was one of the Producers.
I worked as a Production Assistant, and as glamorous as it sounds, what it really entailed was being a glorified messenger. I was one of five PAs and the youngest of the lot. We were perpetually on call, answerable to everyone, responsible for all tasks that weren’t, hadn’t, or couldn’t be assigned to anyone, and always ready to respond to any enquiries.
It was a tasking job, and we were always on our feet, sun up to sundown. The production took about two months, and it was a lot of fun. I got to observe the movie production process first-hand, and also met many Nollywood industry people: actors, producers, costumiers, etc. I also got to travel to various scenic locations around Lagos.
Those two jobs did a lot to build my confidence and exposure before getting into university. I learnt so many things, some of which involve understanding how to relate with people, managing money and records, handling negotiations, and anticipating challenges and seeking ways to resolve them. Now, if you are wondering why I am not a famous Nollywood Writer, Editor, Actor, Director, or Producer after working in a video club and then on a movie set, just know that I am also wondering about this!
Growing up those days, unlike now, the culture of working before graduation was not so emphasised. If you didn’t need to earn income to support your family, i.e. your parents could afford to take care of the home, and meet all the basic needs without extra help, chances are no one would chase you to find work. Getting into a higher institution was always the goal. And when you got into school, you would probably not even think about work as the mantra then was “go to school, study, and earn your degree”.
Many parents and even children didn’t associate working while studying with gaining experience. Any activity outside of the primary purpose of going to school was often considered a distraction. There were definitely students who worked while studying, but many of them worked to send themselves to school and probably also contribute to their family’s economic situation. Working to gain experience was not the norm.
Back in those days, there weren’t as many opportunities for those who wanted or needed to work before getting into school, or while studying. Many of the available opportunities involved either sales, clerical, or factory work. One’s location also influenced the kind of work one could engage in, as those in busy urban areas like Lagos were exposed to more opportunities than those in Ile-Ife, for example. If you didn’t work, then you learnt a skill, for example, tailoring, mechanic/ electrical work, and hairdressing.
Many students sadly fell for the “go to school, study, and earn your degree” mantra, as they didn’t even consider gaining volunteer experience while schooling.
At least if you did not work because you did not need the money, you could at least volunteer on a project or with a student association, and gain workplace skills and experience.
As a result, many people, while job hunting, ended up finding out that they had paper qualifications but very limited real-world experience. They had never held a job of any kind, and they had also not developed skills through volunteer opportunities. This placed those who had some form of exposure to the workplace at an advantage as they were well prepared to fit in.
Nowadays, with the advent of the internet and greater economic development, amongst many other factors, there are a lot more job opportunities in a wider range of sectors that school leavers and students can aspire to. Several sectors, for example, the technology, hospitality, and creative industries provide work opportunities as they often have seasonal/ temporary jobs which require basic entry skills.
I would like to see a situation where higher institutions champion work opportunities for students. I remember that the University of Lagos started a work-study programme sometime in the late 1990s. They established a bakery, a water factory, and a soap-making factory, and through those businesses, they provided work opportunities for interested students. It was a fantastic opportunity for students to gain work experience whilst also contributing to the university’s bottom line.
I know some private universities are quite deliberate about including internship/ entrepreneurial requirements as part of their curricula. We need more of this across higher institutions. Business owners should also join in and commit to taking interns.
The synergy between town (corporate society) and gown (higher institutions) will provide benefits to both parties. Parents should also be deliberate about helping their children/ wards chart their future by prompting them to either find holiday jobs or learn skills so they can become productive members of society.
If we want to raise a society of self-directed individuals, then we need to expose them to real-world experience so they can gain basic workplace skills. This way, they can be better equipped to decide whether they want to find work or create jobs by starting businesses.
It’s a win-win for everyone at the end of the day, and this is the way I see things today.