Thursday, April 30, 2009

Journey to the Depths of Hope

By Sonnie Ekwowusi

Lagos — My journey to Institute for Industrial Technology (IIT) last Monday was like a journey to the depths of hope. At a time when all we seem to be celebrating is hopelessness, journeying to a far-flung poor neigbourhood of Isheri-North Residential Scheme, Kosofe Government Area, Off Lagos Badagry-Express-Way, Lagos and finding an institution that produces competent technicians for our industries and companies was like discovering a precious treasure. The wind blows where it wills and we can hardly tell where and when the wind will blow on us. Oftentimes we go about searching for treasures in the so-called special places forgetting that the most precious treasure can be found in the most unusual place. Before last Monday I had heard about the marvel called IIT and how it had produced young graduates now employed in Nestle, Guinness, Nigerian Breweries, Tetra-Pak, British-American Tobacco and all that. I had also read with relish Dr. Yomi Makanjuola's most-refreshing piece on IIT and the inevitable place of qualitative technical and vocation education in nation building. But little did I appreciate the whole revolution going on at IIT until I got to the place last Monday.

Everything happened fortuitously, although we have been told that nothing actually happens by chance. Worried by the increasing number of idle hoboes, out-of-school unskilled youths in Nnewi and its environs, the Nnewi Improvement Union sent a delegate to IIT to find out how Nnewi can benefit from the qualitative technical education which the school offers. Apparently after the delegate visited IIT and presented their report, the news filtered into the air. A member of the Anambra State House of Assembly who heard about the visit rang me up and said: "Go to IIT and find out about this thing they are doing. A lot of our young boys are wasting away in idleness. You can't believe it; we now have many Igbo area boys". He recounted to me his recent sad experience at Berger, Lagos where he had gone to buy a "tokunbo car. After buying the car and was walking away, he looked behind and saw, to his utter disappointment, about 25 Igbo boys in the age bracket of, say, 15-25, following him and begging him for money. It then dawned on him that petty-trading alone cannot take Igbo youths anywhere. Any wonder he did not hesitate to dispatch me to IIT as soon as he heard about the place. Why should I refuse to carry out such a lofty assignment? Human development is the epicenter of all developments. Any nation which doesn't invest in preparing her youths for tomorrow's leadership challenges is a nation tottering on the precipice of collapse.

Off I left with a Lagos-based accountant, a promoter of technical and vocational education and two young secondary school leavers. IIT stands in a world of its own at the desolate Isheri-North Residential Scheme. Many of the students, I gather, come from poor backgrounds. The school even offers scholarships to some deserving indigent students who cannot afford to pay the modest fees paid in the school. IIT aims at empowering these young students, who are mostly in the age bracket of 17-21, with world class skills that Nigeria needs for growth. My first shock was that the school was well-equipped with the latest technology and equipment for imparting technical education and vocation skills. I understand that the 3-year Electro-mechanics programme which ITT offers is modeled after the world renowned German Dual Training System that uses both the schools and the factory as avenues for learning. This ensures that the students appreciate the practical relevance of the concept being taught. Essentially IIT students are exposed to mechanical, electrical, electronics and automation technologies to equip them with relevant technical skills that the various industries need. Since its inception in 2002, IIT Electro-mechanics program has produced top graduates who have gained full emplyement within six months of their graduation in top industries. ITT graduates are well paid. Some earn more than University graduates in industries where they are employed. The products of the school, sooner after graduation, become breadwinners and could feed their families. The Director-General of the school showed us the school's well-equipped welding-instruction room. He explained that the concept of welding to the average Nigerian is pedestrian welding bereft of professionalism, but the welding course which ITT offers is a unique one that actually equips the students to carry out professional welding work anywhere. Before departure, the Director-General explained that, aside from technical competence and prowess, what makes IIT graduates excel in industries is their ability to put into practice the work ethics lessons which IIT constantly gives them. Of course another secret of successes of IIT is that it is a purely private non-profit making project of some concerned Nigerian citizens across the different divides. Government has no hands in it.

I left the premises of IIT feeling elated that I had reached the depths of human hope. It means that there is hope for this country if we do the right thing. There is hope if policy makers understand what they are supposed to do and do not mix them up with empty politics. You will recall that in the 70s and even 80s there were many well-run technical colleges and vocational schools in Nigeria . But unfortunately today all of them have collapsed. I remember the Benin Technical College , which, I think, was a joint educational initiative of the then Bendel State government and the Canadian government. When the college first started, it was the best thing in Benin . But a few years afterwards everything in the school came down crumbling. Other technical colleges across the country have suffered the same fate. We talk big; we boast big; we make noise on the pages of newspapers, but at the end of the day no concrete achievement. Our 6-3-3-4 educational system originally designed to promote technical and vocational education is not working. Our cultural bias for white-collar and paper qualification has become a formable obstacle to tackling the shortage of skillful manpower in Nigeria . Our concept of a University is completely skewed. Many of our tertiary institutions are busy churning out certificate-carrying graduates and nothing more. On the back page of this paper last Wednesday, Dr. Okey Ikechukwu lamented what he termed "the triumph of incestuous scholarship" in our Universities. Granted, unemployment may be biting harder but employers of labour are complaining that many of the certificate-carrying job seekers lack the requisite skills to work in their respective organizations. Every year many of our brightest students enroll to study engineering courses in the Universities and polytechnics but after graduation many of them can't even repair an ordinary electric generator.

So there is real cause for great alarm: our education system is in deep crisis and we should stop pretending that we have an already-made solution to the crisis. The truth of the matter is that we have no solution to the crisis. That is the big tragedy. And the adverse effects are already being felt in Nigeria . Countries like South Korea , Malaysia , Singapore , Philippines and others which have invested in technical and vocational education have greatly excelled. But here in Nigeria we lack the technical know-how to operate new equipment imported for our manufacturing industries because they are highly-automated and contain complex technologies ranging from mechanical to electrical/electronics and information technology. A country that cannot produce competent artisans, technicians, motor mechanics, plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, welders etc cannot claim to be making progress. So we have no choice in Nigeria but to start training good technicians, electricians, artisans, electrical engineers and good motor mechanics too. It is a scandal that some rich Nigerians now take their cars to neigbouring African countries for repairs.

Our growing dependence on technology must be matched by a proportionate increase in the number of properly- trained, competent and highly-motivated technicians and engineers needed to design, install, maintain and adapt to new technologies. We must change this perverted value system which assesses the worth of a man by what he owns or the type of car he drives. Parents must be properly focused. There is nothing downgrading in becoming a technician. Every brilliant young graduate must not work for a bank or an oil company. Look at the Chinese invading our markets and competing with us. With our eyes glued to the oil they will soon undercut us away from the market.

I look forward to returning to IIT some day to revive my hope of a better tomorrow: the hope of seeing many young Nigerians graduating with requisite techincal skills and competence and solving the manpower needs of our companies and industries.

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