Teetering on the Edge of a Cliff Safeguarding Nigeria's Future Workforce

The future of formal work in Nigeria hangs in the balance.

Credentials are no longer effective competency indicators; with rising unemployment, Nigeria increasingly needs to shift its education-to-employment systems to focus, instead, on competencies. As employers around the world scramble to hire the most productive labour at the lowest cost, the economies that will come out ahead are those that can provide the most productive workforce with the highest rate of return on investment.

In order to remain economically competitive, Nigeria needs to develop a productive workforce. For this to happen, the country must address three key issues: growing youth unemployment; a widening skills gap; and an education system in decay. While there are, indeed, issues within Nigeria’s education-to-employment model, there are, increasingly, ways of rethinking current education and employment practices and processes to facilitate closing the skills gap, create a more skilled workforce, address youth unemployment, and create a productive future workforce.


By 2050, Nigeria’s population will reach 401 million to become the world’s third highest, according to the UN. Nigeria’s labour force, work-capable individuals between the ages of 15 and 64, will balloon to almost 244 million (from nearly 61 million today). By 2050, 78 million of Nigeria’s labour force will be young people, who will account for nearly 20 per cent of Africa’s youth population between the ages of 15 and 24. Young people may, therefore, be Nigeria’s greatest asset.

However, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, youth unemployment has risen to 30 per cent today. More than 55 per cent of the youth population is either unemployed or underemployed—that’s 25 million young Nigerians either not working or working under 20 hours a week. That number could be 43 million by 2050. With young people, we may, therefore, also be sitting on our biggest time bomb and must find ways to increase youth labour participation in order to avoid disaster.


In today’s global labour marketplace, the skills that make jobseekers employable and able to contribute significant value to the marketplace and economy can be boiled down into twenty-first-century competencies that form the backbone of a person’s lifelong ability to learn new and emerging skills. These skills include critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, and adaptability. Over the last three decades, however, despite holding on to most students for 9 to 12 years, our education system has increasingly failed to develop these critical competencies. The skills gap is very real for young people, who simply don’t have the skills that available jobs require, and for employers, who increasingly find it hard to fill open positions with qualified talent. Nevertheless, education institutions continue to add unskilled graduates to the labour force, leaving these young people to struggle to find worthwhile employment.

Employers also overlook an important youth demographic: Nigerian youth who do have competencies but developed them in non-traditional ways (such as through alternative pathway programmes). For the most part, these young people are summarily excluded from the job market by hiring practices that make a university degree mandatory.

Compounding the problem is the fact that both skilled and unskilled jobseekers usually have limited professional networks and social capital to access jobs. They also have limited knowledge and access to job search and career planning tools, which further limits their ability to enter the workforce. Moreover, WAVE (West Africa Vocational Education) found in our 2018 study, ‘Analysing the Nigerian Recruiters’ Degree Bias: 2018 Hiring Process in Nigeria’, that the HR channels of many Nigerian companies are severely limited; 62 per cent of companies interviewed rely on referrals, in-house CVs, and various social media platforms, all of which are inaccessible for the majority of candidates.


With a national poverty rate of 44 per cent, and with more than 5 people falling into extreme poverty every minute, Nigeria is the world’s new poverty capital. As the unemployment rate rises, young people are more likely to fall into extreme poverty. This risk alone does not bode well for the economy; with migration at peak levels, Nigeria will lose its most promising workforce members to other countries at an even faster rate than today’s, as young people leave in droves to seek better economic and education opportunities that will ensure that they (and their children) remain globally competitive. But it doesn’t end there. Nigerian employers, too, will increasingly be left with the least competitive and economically-viable citizens who will continue to access fewer economic opportunities as the poor get even poorer, as industries grapple with a shrinking pool of qualified candidates, and as the economy declines.


In order to staunch the outward flow of talent and develop its youth workforce, Nigeria must begin to rethink its education-to-employment model, starting with the tertiary education system. For students in the West, the benefits of a university degree are immediately apparent: degrees yield higher incomes for their holders over the course of a working life. US college graduates, for instance, earn on average 56 per cent more than high school graduates and are more likely to find work, while a degree from a prestigious university increases a UK graduate’s lifetime earnings by as much as £177,000.

In Nigeria, however, salaries tend to be much lower and the pay gap between entry-level university and secondary school graduates is often much less pronounced. Our 2017 survey included 32 employers in the Lagos metropolitan area and found this pay gap to be 34 per cent on average, which is reflective of the greater number of Nigerian employers. Despite this, more students are opting for a tertiary education, more are graduating from universities than ever before, simply to boost their employability chances, while ironically remaining perpetual job seekers post-graduation because these institutions are unable to help them develop required work-readiness competencies.

Appreciating the issues within the current (broken) education-to-employment system requires an understanding of the perceptions of key stakeholders at the secondary and tertiary level: regulators, educators, parents, and students. In an ongoing study of the ‘Perceptions vs Reality of the Nigerian Education System‘, WAVE has, so far, found that while the majority of these stakeholders seem to generally agree that tertiary education should prepare students for employment or enterprise, there is little understanding of what that actually means or looks like as a process.

Most stakeholders actually believe that institutions are currently meeting education goals and producing desired learning outcomes, even though these same stakeholders are mostly unfamiliar with ‘what good looks like’. It is only years after graduating that stakeholders realize that the system has short changed them and it is too late to turn back the hands of time. Scarier still is the failure to realize that no more than 10 per cent of the population within five years of secondary school graduation age are actually enrolled in tertiary education. Which means that our secondary schools are essentially the ‘last bus stop’ for our young people before they join the workforce. If our tertiary institutions are failing to deliver work-readiness, how less so our secondary schools!

Educators surveyed believe that they are adequately preparing students for work, despite the many challenges they see in their execution of their roles as educators: ineffective policies, programme objectives, and legal frameworks; insufficient and ineffective regulator monitoring; poor programme funding and research; a focus on theoretical knowledge over practical application; obsolete teaching aids; a lack of facilities; and systemic and student apathy. That being said, most of them failed to identify specific work-readiness skills as well as competency-based learning methods for developing these skills.

Parents, for their part, fund the education of the majority of students in Nigeria and those interviewed for the study believe they understand their children’s academic capabilities, needs and aspirations. Most parents, however, are unfamiliar with the concept of work readiness and the overwhelming majority have never heard of competency-based learning. Like regulators and educators, parents believe that institutions are properly preparing students for the workforce, even though most of these parents don’t know what specific skills students need for the workforce.

Many of the interviewed secondary school parents want their children learning a skill while they wait for admittance into university and are interested in alternative learning programmes, i.e. non-institutional programmes that teach students work-readiness skills. Most of these parents are willing to invest in these programmes if these programmes can successfully build work competencies in students and deliver greater work opportunities.

Students surveyed agree with other stakeholders that their institutions are preparing them for work, but many of their perspectives diverge from there. Though most students say that their institutions are preparing them for work, they don’t believe that Nigerian institutions generally do the same for other students due to a number of issues, including obsolete curriculum and absence of work-readiness skills in the curriculum, poor teaching facilities and equipment, a lack of capacity to teach the required curriculum, and a focus on grades over learning outcomes. Both university and secondary school students believe that institutions need to improve vocational skills training.

Most interviewed students also seem to be aware that they are not work-ready and are interested in alternative learning programmes, even though many cannot articulate their short- and long-term goals. Moreover, many university students seek out extracurricular activities they believe will teach them work-readiness and life skills outside the classroom, e.g. school politics, entrepreneurship, or participation in religious activities. The effectiveness of these activities as a substitute for competency-based learning is doubtful, however, and may not facilitate entry into, or meet the needs of the labour market.

It’s safe to conclude that we all largely agree on the outcomes of our education-to-employment system (i.e. to produce work-ready youth), but we are yet to have a national conversation about the inputs, processes, outputs and performance indicators that are required to get our young people Ready For Work. We therefore cannot hold our institutions accountable in real-time for delivering on these desired outcomes.


In 2018, WAVE examined a cross-section of 500 randomly-selected entry-level job vacancies posted online, and found that 91 per cent of these jobs (across 12 sectors) required a university degree, while 87 per cent of them required relevant work experience. Over time, the labour market has raised minimum degree requirements for both ‘middle-skill’ positions (i.e. jobs that require secondary school certificates but not a university degree, e.g. secretarial work, bookkeeping, etc.), while high-skill positions (i.e. jobs that require a tertiary education) have even more inflexible academic requirements. Employers have, as a result, shrunk their pool of skilled candidates and shot themselves in the foot.

It’s easy at first to see why employers focus on credentials. Nigeria’s huge growth in the graduate population has caused many employers to make university degrees a standard hiring requirement, making it the new qualifications baseline. ‘Upcredentialing’ also known as ‘credential inflation’ might work in countries where a university degree holder will likely have more cognitive skills and be more disciplined than a secondary school graduate, but such is not the case with our decayed/ing institutions. A tertiary education is also assumed to be a good basis for acquiring the non-technical skills needed to succeed in the workplace, such as: analytical thinking and problem-solving, communication skills, team building and interpersonal relations, and work ethic. However, many employers don’t know how to screen for or measure these soft skills during the hiring process and erroneously use degrees as a proxy for skill when evaluating the same candidates who likely don’t possess the technical skills employers seek.

While Nigerian employers enforce credentials-based hiring practices to their detriment, employers in other countries have opened their doors to non-traditional candidates. Before the 2010s, companies like Google, sought out top graduates, those who outperformed their classmates academically, because these individuals were ostensibly guaranteed to bring bankable value to their employers and industries. By 2013, however, tech companies had learned that good grades don’t always translate to on-the-job success. Academic credentials were, in fact, almost worthless when hiring and these companies learned their lesson, as did numerous employers across different industries around the world. Google doesn’t even hire top graduates anymore. Apple now considers non-degree holders. Ernst & Young no longer requires a higher-education degree for many of its positions. Bank of America and IBM have also opened their doors to non-traditional candidates.

These and other foreign companies no longer hire for credentials. Instead, employers abroad now increasingly offer well-paying positions to candidates with a high-school diploma or non-traditional education. Our high youth unemployment numbers and falling standards at higher institutions make these practices especially relevant to Nigerian employers.

WAVE research further proves that the employer bias in Nigeria for credentials and against non-traditional candidates is problematic. Our 2018 study found that employers who hire non-traditional candidates have seen good performance from these employees; the top performers of 71 per cent of the study’s foreign companies held degrees that were related to their job functions, the top performers of 72 per cent of the study’s Nigerian companies held unrelated degrees. And 51 per cent of companies that practised competency-based hiring experience higher retention rates and less turnover.


Ensuring the viability of the future workforce is dependent on two points of change: adopting competency-based education and work readiness as an education goal to produce a more skilled talent pool; and adjusting the recruitment focus from credentials to competency to let in candidates with alternative training.

Rethinking Education

In order to improve the return on investment in tertiary education for graduates, Nigeria must, like other countries, evolve its current education model to adopt competency-based learning. Competency-based education offers a new value proposition for the Nigerian education system.

In this learning systems model, clearly defined programmatic outcomes for teaching and learning ensure that students acquire specific knowledge and skills deemed to be essential to success in both their education paths and careers. Skills training usually comprises field-related technical skills (e.g. basic literacy and computer literacy) and soft skills (e.g. leadership, teamwork, problem-solving skills, communication skills, taking initiative, interpersonal skills, adaptability, and creativity). To ensure skills proficiency, the teaching environment provides curriculum flexibility, with faculty and staff providing proactive guidance and support, while learning is reinforced and evaluated through exercises, activities, and experiences that have real-world contexts.

In the fluid and adaptable environment of competency-based education, the goal is work readiness. By employing this clear and calibrated approach to education, institutions can help the country effectively tackle youth unemployment and put work within the reach of more young Nigerians.

Let’s be clear that we are advocates for education-to-employment systems that view their purpose more holistically – not just to create functional citizens who just ‘get by’ economically but to teach people how to learn, how to live and how to be thoughtful citizens. What we cannot afford is a system that fails to deliver on an agreed minimum requirement of preparing young people for the twenty-first-century world of work and life.

In order to adopt a competency-based learning model and ensure the successful entry of more young people into the workforce, education institutions must overhaul curricula at the secondary and tertiary levels and move education into the 21st century by developing more holistic skills acquisition programmes that help create a more employable workforce. Key Performance Indicators must be redesigned around processes that include three essential objectives: 1. Practical application of theoretical knowledge; 2. Competency-based learning where students are trained to pre-designed competency levels and advancement is based on demonstrated and validated skills proficiency; and 3. Work-readiness and life skills.

Rethinking Hiring Practices

Getting graduates to the level of employability is only half of the journey, however. The effectiveness of revamped education processes is as contingent on the training and continuous development of educators to ensure quality of instruction as it is on continuous industry input to ensure real-world relevance. These fundamental inputs are interdependent.

Employers will first need to work with institutions to develop students by increasing internships, apprenticeships, and other work placement opportunities. By allowing students to round out their competency-based education in real-world conditions, employers will help create a more qualified pool of job candidates and, eventually, more work-ready employees.

Employers can go a step further and work with alternative pathway programmes (APPs) in the same way. These alternative learning programmes do not offer traditional post-secondary degrees or certification. Instead, these innovative education-to-employment programmes provide education and training for specific jobs as well as career pathways. APPs are local and industry-specific. They generally involve three main actors at the organization level. Training providers identify, recruit, and support programme participants; help them build work competencies; and provide continuing support after participants secure employment. Employers guide training by identifying in-demand skills, participate in curriculum design to ensure that curricula are demand-driven, and offer on-the-job training for entry-level jobs. Workforce intermediaries connect training providers to employers by brokering relationships and identifying key in-demand areas within industries. By working closely within these programmes, employers will help identify and produce higher-skilled job candidates.

Employers must, therefore, redesign hiring practices that consider the mostly untapped pool of young, trainable talent with skills but no credentials and begin to ‘screen in’ rather than screen out these work-ready youth and allow them to signal the skills they have. Employers can maximize the effectiveness of these mouldable candidates by increasing access to skills training opportunities for these employees once they are hired.

The future of the Nigerian workforce is dependent on these concerted reorientation efforts. Educators and employers can shift the current education system and hiring practices into the 21st century and close the skills gap while also helping to reduce youth unemployment.

They just need to take the first step together