One of the critical things we clamour for when foreign contractors win contracts or foreign countries provide aid or funding for infrastructure projects is that they do a skill transfer to Nigerians. It is a disservice to our people that the most skilled people in our critical industries are overpaid foreigners from Europe, Asia and the Americas. And we are wired to think that where a foreigner and a Nigerian appear for a job, that foreigner is better skilled and superior to the Nigerian.
I read a story of a gentleman who had a European reporting to him in a multinational company. They went together for a presentation somewhere and everyone offered the European the “oga” treatment, assuming by default that the Nigerian was junior to him. You can only imagine how embarrassed their hosts were when the European introduced the Nigerian as his boss. They kept apologizing profusely while he simply smiled graciously and delivered his presentation.
The truth however is that more often than not, this default position of the foreigner being more senior and better skilled than the Nigerian holds true. Now while this is somewhat understandable for the more advanced technology, infrastructure and economic areas, considering the terrible failure of our educational system, the part that I find difficult to wrap my head around is where foreigners dominate the handiwork and craftsman type jobs in our country.
For example, my wife’s best tailors have been Ghanaian or Ivorian. The Nigerians just simply didn’t deliver quality consistently. When I was doing up my apartment, I initially got a Nigerian to lay the tiles. When I returned, I pointed out that the tiles were not properly aligned even to my naked eye, but the guy kept waving it aside as if it was acceptable and the best we could get with the type of tiles I had. I eventually had to source for some guys from Benin Republic who worked overnight for two days and laid the very same tiles in proper symmetry and even did very accurate wall skirting with the tiles.
I visited my friend and wanted to use his restroom. When I got to the washbasin to wash my hands, I was disgusted by the way the workman had used the white cement to join the basin to the wall. It was utterly distasteful. It was a Nigerian guy that did this job. He eventually had to get a Togolese guy to do it properly.
In each of the examples, it is the same basic skills that are required, the same materials available to both workmen, and the same amount of supervision. But the foreign workmen (in spite of a language barrier many times) consistently outperformed their Nigerian counterparts, delivering better quality of work, in a more professional manner and with better attitudes. In some cases, they even cost us less than the Nigerians. I got a Nigerian mason to do some plastering for me and he asked for four thousand Naira per day. After the first day, I asked him not to come back because of the rubbish work he did. The plaster was uneven and he kept arguing he was doing it right. Eventually, we got one from Benin Republic and he did a professional job for Two Thousand Five Hundred Naira daily.
What are the reasons for this lack of skill in our craftsmen? The first is a collapse of our apprenticeship system. I recall when someone who learnt a trade wanted to do a “freedom” party back in the days. It was a big deal. The individual would have learnt under a renowned master of the craft and must be certified as ready to ply the trade by not just his/her master but by other masters before they had the freedom ceremony. It was only after that the individual could ply the trade. But today, we have people who do not learn their crafts properly and are certified by no one going about parading themselves as professionals, wrecking havoc to jobs they are given. This is exacerbated by the new influx of easy money to be made from low skill careers in riding “okadas” and “keke napeps. You find people who should still be learning under a master leaving and riding okadas or driving keke napeps while practicing their trade by the side. And as they say, half knowledge is more dangerous than none.
The government also needs to study the German system where apprenticeships are incorporated under the education system and where it is possible to obtain a degree by going through rigorous apprenticeship as an alternative to the university. You can read about this HERE and thoughts on adapting it.
There was a traditional discrimination where people who went to school were seen as much better than those who went through apprenticeship to get skilled. In fact, parents typically tried to put a child through school and if the child could not continue, they would then be “downgraded” to apprenticeship.
There is also a remarkable sense of excellence present in the foreign workers absent in ours. A Nigerian worker fixes a shower for you and you call him/her that not all the holes have water coming out, hence the shower isn’t rushing well. They would probably tell you that “shebi it is still bringing out water, so it is working” and expect to get paid in full, whereas these other Africans will fix it properly for you.
We cannot go very far outsourcing all our skilled jobs, both high and low end to foreigners. Europeans, Asians and Americans are taking up the high end work, while other Africans and Asians are taking up the lower end work. And no, the solution is not a hare-brained ban on foreign workers. I spoke with a friend who works in one of the foreign firms in joint ventures with NNPC in oil and gas. They are constrained to use Nigerian firms for work because of the Local Content Act in oil and gas. It has been a nightmare for them. Nigerian companies consistently deliver at variance to requirements and well over budget and far beyond agreed timelines. And they have resolutely refused to skill up even after getting repeat work. We cannot be beating people over the head with patriotism and patronizing Nigerian workers when they will deliver poor quality and we can get it done using readily available foreigners. Let us stop playing abeg.