Mr. President, and the SUG leadership, thank you for having me here and asking that I share my thoughts on an important subject: School and Work at Crossroads: Preparing for 21st-Century Opportunities.
I am conscious that this is a dinner event, so I will go straight to the point, and I’m willing to be engaged beyond today on how you can navigate the mirage of challenges confronting you especially as you leave school. But a message you must get upfront is Never give up! It was one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who reminded us that “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Whatever you may be going through today, I am confident that you will overcome, just as I am confident that Nigeria will someday get better.
In 1977 when I enrolled as a student at the University of Calabar, and despite the best efforts of the school authority, one could still discern the unfairness in the Nigerian system. This resulted in some of us gravitating towards organizations and lecturers with progressive ideas; and anyone who was willing to invest in making Nigeria a better country. Given that the university is and should remain not only a citadel of learning but an environment where ideological thoughts are freely espoused, it was not difficult to build up the needed momentum to confront the military government. One of such confrontations was the famous ‘Ali-must-go’ struggle of 1978, whose declaration took place at the University of Calabar under the leadership of host President, Offiong Akwa, and with Segun Oke-owo, as the National President of National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS).
Though crushed, the military crack-down did not mitigate the fire in some of us as we continued to encourage and position like-minded individuals in the SUG. We became the watchdog of the society, ever ready for ‘action.’ I was in the Parliament, and my obligation as a change agent continued even beyond school. So, I know what you are doing and thank you for your service to your constituents and the larger society. But make no mistake; there is a lot of work to be done, including utilizing appropriate legally acceptable tactics to alter the derailment we are witnessing in Nigeria today. Everyone has a role to play.
But before I progress, let me make some interjections that seek to breakdown the basic building blocks used in the construction of the theme of this lecture, in a bid to providing clarity. School, in the context of our discourse, represents an educational institution (like the university) dedicated to the provision of teaching, learning, research, socialization and the cross-fertilization of knowledge. On the flip-side, work relates to the effort expended in a job, occupation, labour, employment or business in a bid to gain financial rewards.
Amongst other purposes, school was designed to prepare one for work. But today, people attend schools which prepare them for jobs which do not exist, including equipping them with knowledge not in tandem with the requirements of the 21st century workplace. Additionally, as you know, a crossroad is a junction where two or more roads meet, dissecting one another and heading in different directions. The underlining metaphor is that of school and work having travelled together for some time, now appear to be rowing in different directions. So, my remarks this evening is on what you should do differently to prepare for and capture the opportunities which the 21st century offers.
Lest we forget, just last year, the Nigerian youths expressed dissatisfaction most civilly through the End-SARS-protest, which was unfortunately derailed by a few unprincipled ones. Mirage of issues were on the ticket. And only recently, back home, a most devastating incident occurred with the death of your colleague, Miss Iniubong Umoren. Please accept, once again, my sympathy. In a chat with Professor Joe Ushie, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, he described Iniobong’s death as ‘’…unnerving, most devastating, most bestial, and all of us are dead in the death of that innocent soul’’. How sad! How did we arrive at this low point; with so much focus on self, little or no consideration for others, and utter disregard for the future? All these must make you angry. But you know, any genuine anger should provoke positive actions for a desired change. So, beyond this dinner, I will like you to constantly ask yourselves three questions…
What am I angry about?
How did I contribute to the things that I am angry about?
What should I do to eliminate or mitigate the things that I am angry about?
On November 21, 2014, I was invited by this great Institution as the 19th/20th convocation guest speaker, on the topic, Challenges, and Opportunities for University Graduates in a Season of Economic and Moral Decay. Given the seemingly prevailing culture of being politically correct, I was shocked at the topic and therefore reached out to the then Vice-Chancellor, Professor Comfort Ekpo, to confirm if she desired an honest conversation. I was proud that she approved the topic, a signal that even the authorities were not happy with the status quo. The views I expressed seven years ago remain unchanged and I will therefore not repeat myself. I will only remind the school authorities of the following:
- We now live in a knowledge-based world where information and innovations are king. Ideas drive innovations, especially in the red-hot technology industries and your curriculum must therefore be significantly adjusted to enable students express themselves responsibly and blossom. In this regard, I must commend the efforts of the present administration led by Professor Nyaudoh Ukpabio Ndaeyo in ensuring the takeoff of a TETFUND Centre for computational Intelligence. This centre will provide opportunities for students to acquire skills in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Big Data Analytics.
- As we know, our society needs innovation in every sector –health, education, security, environment, etc. Efforts should therefore be geared towards enabling projects that will impact the entire ecosystem. I am hoping we can see centers that would accelerate student’s entrepreneurship, providing hands-on start-up experiences and offering opportunities for young innovators to talk about their works.
- Our research capabilities must also be significantly improved. It is disappointing that the International Centre for Energy and Environmental Sustainability Research initiative, which I helped start up in 2015, has not been fully optimized, despite its potential not only to broaden the knowledge base of students, but to enhance business collaboration and attract revenue to the university.
- Given that today’s economic realities will not suddenly disappear, the university authorities must be creative in the running of their institutions. The 2021 National Bureau of Statistics data, which puts the unemployment rate in Nigeria at an alarming 33.3%, is already a sad reminder of a mismatch when juxtaposed with our 308 degree-awarding Institutions (134 polytechnics and 174 Universities), at a current enrollment population of about 2 million, churning out about 600,000 graduates annually. That schools will also graduate students with little or no practical exposure in their fields shows a-disconnect between the gown and the workplace. A few weeks ago, I had an encounter with a promising Akwa Ibom youth, who recently graduated in Marine Engineering from one of our universities (not UNIUYO). But the problem is that he has never been on a ship throughout his entire school years. How is he going to start his career journey? Why was his program not linked to such practical exposure? When compared to his peers from other climes, who already have experience on ocean-going ships, how will he compete?
- There should be rigorous internship opportunities as part of the school curriculum to prepare students for the marketplace. As President and Chairman of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Management, we launched in 2018 a 6-months internship program tagged ‘Ready to Market’ (RTM); to help bridge the huge gap in the readiness of graduates of tertiary institutions to meet the expectations of employers. Though targeted at only Human Resources practitioners, I recommend this model for all professional institutions. We should also strengthen existing Government’s internship programs. These will ensure that you, including my young marine engineering friend, are not given the short end of the stick, going forward. Given his positive attitude, I have no doubts that he will succeed.
Now to my dear students, let me again assure you that no matter how foggy the situation may be, you have the capacity to alter your future trajectory, especially if you decide to do things right. Let me share some thoughts based on my moral compass for success.
Do not allow today’s circumstances limit your ability to have tall aspirations. I graduated from the University at a time when Nigeria was beginning to face severe economic crises, and things subsequently worsened with the adoption of an IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment program in 1986. Inflation had moved from 5.4% in 1986 to 40.9% in 1989 and there was rationing of essential commodities. With factories shutting down, and the government in a backlog of salary payments, securing a job was most unlikely. But I recall walking into the West African People’s Institute (WAPI) Calabar after my NYSC in 1982 to offer my services as a teacher, on a pro bono basis as I never wanted to idle away at home. I also tried my hands at freelance journalism, including applying to join the Nigerian Army. My point is this: I was determined that the system will not put me down and I needed to be creative to legitimately survive. So, what are you doing with your spare time especially at this period when the world is essentially in that tablet you have in your hand? Believe in yourselves and never give up. And choose your next destination with passion. If I made it, then you can do even better.
Any opportunity that comes your way deserves meticulous attention and thorough examination. Even when there are hiccups, please learn to endure, for it is only for a season. Very few people know that I started my career in the Civil Service but it was that foundation as an Administrative Officer that enabled me to eventually secure a job with ExxonMobil. Once in, I never looked back and worked assiduously till the end. It was never a ‘walk in the park’ but I was determined not to be a quitter despite the numerous challenges I faced. Some of you give up so easily and some cannot even appreciate the opportunities around them.
A few years ago, my nephew had his friends over to my house, all fresh graduates. One of them told me he studied Environmental Science and wanted to go into a cleaning service business. He shared his business plan but missed out on an important element: getting his hands dirty. Here was a young man who was still living with his parents but not involved in cleaning the house. In his anticipated business, he would be dependent on others to do the job while he will be content in being the CEO. That is not a good recipe for business success.
As one who has for a long time been engaged in the management of people, I can tell you that many organizations, private and public, groan under the weight of dishonest personnel. This is probably also why some persons in our clime, despite their huge resources, are reluctant to engage in business ventures that would stimulate the local economy and create jobs for our teeming youths.
About five years ago, some friends needed a trusted building contractor in Akwa Ibom state and I was referred to one Mr. Enobong. The first thing that struck me in our telephone conversation was his avowed commitment to integrity. Why was that important to him? He understood its importance in business transactions. This man would undertake several projects, even before we physically met and remains sought after till today, by various clients because of his integrity. Defined as the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, integrity is now arguably as important, as your educational accomplishments. Regarding its place in the workplace, Warren Buffet, one of the wealthiest men in the world put it succinctly: “In looking for people to hire, look for 3 qualities: intelligence, energy and integrity. If they do not have the later, the first two will kill you”.
Access to information
What are you doing with your spare time given how blessed this generation is with technological advancement? You must scout for, seek, and always strive towards getting information that will enrich your knowledge and position you for job opportunities. Luckily, the world is now data-driven. So, potential graduates should look for relevant social media platforms to enhance their job-hunting efforts. LinkedIn is a good example of such a platform. But given the dexterity of dishonest elements in society, please search carefully in order not to be deceived by phony sites.
What happens if you are unable to secure your dream job after graduation? Should you be despondent or distraught? No, you should not. Whilst waiting for the right opportunity, please embark on self-development. You must deepen your professional knowledge; develop a special skill; follow your passion; or start a small business. Do not just wait for opportunity. Create one. Some people have started this way whilst waiting for an opportunity at the dream job but ended up growing big and sustainable businesses. Many of you have great entrepreneurial skills waiting to be unveiled. You will never discover this until you start. Money follows an idea, so develop one first.
Please never ignore the role of God in shaping your fortunes. Always remember Proverbs 16:3 (Amp Bible Version): “Commit your works to the Lord [submit and trust them to Him], And your plans will succeed [if you respond to His will and guidance]”. Also, be properly guided, as prayers without works are an exercise in futility. Put in time! No matter the size of your faith, it must be backed with action to produce result. Remember, the Bible says faith without work is dead. Seek divine direction. Listen to the still small voice. Then take an action.
Yours is a generation like no other, audacious, and blessed with technological advancement. But while the authorities must play their part in providing the enabling environment for you to excel, the actualization of your dreams is squarely in your hands. Going forward, you must end any romance with those who have over time mortgaged your future. And you know them. You must eschew any affiliation with groups that do not advance the common good and you must flee from illicit drugs.
While in school, you must take out from school the basic ingredients you would require to survive, succeed and excel in the workplaces which the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century provide.
I remain an incurable optimist that Nigeria will turn the corner in the not-too-distant future. But that is conditional on us embracing always that which is right. I see that optimism even in Governor Udom Emmanuel, who has openly assured us that ‘’together, in faith, we shall be counted as a great state with a strong economy.” Nothing should derail this vision, just as your growth and prosperity must not be cut.
Let me end on this note. Trust me that I do recognize we are in tough times, but there is an African proverb that reminds us that “we should not allow the belly to make us useless”. So, let’s get to work.
God bless you. Thank you for listening, and please enjoy your dinner.
Mr. Udom Inoyo