Uzokwe's Searchlight



Sunday, June 8, 2014


Alfred Obiora Uzokwe, P.E

SUBSIDY REMOVAL PROGRAM, “SURE-P”, MAY HELP MITIGATE GRADUATE UNEMPLOYMENT



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week ago, I got an email from a young relative of mine. She had not been able to find paid employment, almost 3 years, after graduation from one of Nigeria’s Universities. This is something that breaks my heart whenever I think of it. In normal climes, a degree in mechanical engineering should be able to fetch someone a good paying job, especially in a burgeoning, albeit mismanaged, economy.

The email stated that she had just been offered a position with one of the industries to do a one- year graduate internship program under the “Sure –P” program. She was happy to have been offered that position, but argued, in the email, that the program was more of a scam. Her reasoning was that they were supposed to be paid monthly, by the company they were posted to, but the one she was posted to had told her that she was on her own financially. They were merely going to provide internship training.

Not knowing much about the graduate internship scheme(GIS), but being miffed by what I was reading, I promised to dig into the issue and get to the bottom of it. I recalled that I once read that the federal government had set aside some money for the program so I wanted to ensure that the company she was posted to, was not just pocketing the money that the government set aside for the program. I began my research.

Before I proceed with this treatise and in the interest of clarity, I will refresh the minds of readers about how the acronym and program, “Sure-P” came into being.

In 2011, Nigerians woke up to hear and read that fuel subsidy had been removed. Until then, fuel subsidy was a form of federal government intervention in the price of fuel, to keep it at a level that the ordinary Nigerian could afford. Of course there were all manners of hue and cry against the move to remove the subsidy. Many believed that the action would hike the price of fuel so much that the ordinary Nigerian would either be forced to park their vehicles or spend all their earnings on fuel.

Seeing that Nigerians were not taking the unprecedented action lying down, the Jonathan administration unleashed protagonists of subsidy removal, with the chief spokesperson as Dr Okonjo Iweala, along with others like Lamido Sanusi, then Central Bank governor and Diezani Allison Madueke, the minister for petroleum. Their mission was to convince Nigerians that subsidy removal was good for them in the long run. To accomplish their onerous mission, they took their show on the road, adamantly arguing that keeping the subsidy in place was untenable as it was ballooning the financial obligation of the federal government and making it difficult for certain capital projects to be embarked upon.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala and her team, further argued that keeping the subsidy in place was more of a benefit to a few privileged Nigerians in the oil sector than the ordinary masses and posited that some of the oil magnates, raking in millions from the subsidy, were being paid for services they were not even providing. The argument did not sway Nigerians. All manners of physical and verbal protests dominated the national discourse. In the end, the government of Dr. Jonathan took the middle ground. Instead of full subsidy removal, in January of 2012, fuel subsidy was partially removed.

The money that the government would save, from the partial subsidy removal, President Jonathan’s administration told Nigerians, was to be shared between the federal government and the states. The money would be used for investments and capital projects and managed under a program called SURE-P, an acronym for Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Program. In 2012, the money saved from the subsidy removal was shared between the federal government and states at a ratio of 41% for the federal government and 59% for the states.

In addition to capital investments, one of the programs that the federal government put in place, as part of SURE-P, is the Graduate Internship Scheme (GIS). In this program, the government would use the SURE-P funds to empower about 50,000 Nigerian graduates every year. “Empowerment” means that graduates that have no jobs will be assigned to work for organizations and companies where their skills are needed for a period of one year. The experience will provide the graduates with skills that will not only make them more employable, but imbue them with enough confidence to pursue private ventures if they so choose. It would also act as an incubator for the organizations as they would be free to permanently hire graduates that demonstrate enough talents and skills during their one year stint with them. The ultimate goal of this program is to help tame the graduate unemployment problem that has become a cankerworm in the nation.

As I write, figures from the National Bureau of Statistics indicate that about 1.8 million youths enter the labor market yearly and about 300,000 graduates are part of the numbers! The general unemployment rate in the country is about 24%! How can a nation fully develop with that type unemployment statistic? The United States has an unemployment rate of 6.3% and there is a huge outcry but here is the giant of Africa with one quarter of her population out of work and the best we get is muted outrage? This statistic should jar the most closed minds.

After reading the email my relative sent, I went to the Sure-P site and reviewed available materials regarding the program. Instead of being disappointed, I was impressed, to say the least! The government set aside funds to pay each graduate, in the program, a monthly allowance of N25, 000. This development led me to believe that there may be a misunderstanding, by the applicants, as to whose responsibility it is to pay them their monthly allowance. It seems that the applicants believed that it was the responsibility of the firms they were assigned to, to pay them. My research showed that the interns were to be paid directly by the Federal government.

To get into the Graduate Internship Program, all an unemployed graduate needs to do is to go to the SURE-P website, complete an application, providing such information as area of expertise and academic qualification. With that, the administrator of the program places the graduates in the firms or organizations that match their areas of specialization. The Sure-P website boasts that as at last week, more than 44,000 graduates had applied for the program. This is a good development, although it is sad to know that as much as 44,000 Nigerian graduates are roaming the streets without work.

The tendency is for the reader to wonder how this helps unemployed graduates in tangible terms. From my perspective, it is one of those deals where half a loaf is better than none. The worst thing that can happen to an unemployed university graduate, apart from the boredom, is to wake up every morning and have nowhere to go. This erodes self-esteem and slowly whittles away the “can-do” disposition that most graduates emerge from university with. If assigned to a busy and productive working environment, morale can be kept somewhat up if not high.

Also, it should be borne in mind that part of the reason why some of the graduates do not get jobs, in the first place, in the first place, is the absence of post-university work experience. Again, if posted to a productive environment with activities relevant to the graduates’ area of specialty, at the end of the one year stint, the graduate may actually become primed for gainful employment in their areas of specialty. Even if the graduate does not get a job after the program, they would have garnered enough practical experience to go into business for themselves.

Suffice it to say that for a graduate to wake up every morning and have to go and beg for pocket money, from parents or even friends, is not only demeaning but also lowers self-esteem. It puts that person in a situation where they gradually become unduly subservient to their benefactors and self-confidence begins to take flight from them. One can argue that N25, 000 a month is small considering that inflation is sky high in the nation. However, making that money in exchange for putting a good day’s work can be rewarding. It is yet another case of half a loaf being better than none. N25, 000 could help the graduate take care of mundane needs like phone charge cards, transportation and a few beers here and there. The biggest argument against joblessness of a graduate or anyone at all, is that “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop”. Some are arguing that this is merely a glorified youth service. It may well be but it is better than nothing and the government needs to be lauded for this.

Just like anything, there are lots of opportunities for improvement of the program. It is the opinion of this writer that a period of one year is not enough for the program. Granted, these are graduates but the quality of education in the country has deteriorated so much that university students never really get all they used to before graduation. I have met, in Nigeria, a civil engineering graduate that never had the opportunity to go through lab testing of basic civil engineering materials like soil, concrete, asphalt and steel. The truth is that one can never be a successful civil engineer without a strong foundational knowledge of the properties of these basic materials. It is important in road construction, bridge construction, building construction and other ancillaries like culverts. Sure-P graduate internship could help make those lacking in these areas of knowledge more employable if posted to relevant companies. For those that need certification in disciplines like engineering or architecture, the experience garnered can count towards the years of experience needed to take the exams and become eligible for certification.

The government must be sure that all firms they are partnering with are reputable and willing to challenge the graduates through work assignments and mentorship. Sending a graduate where they will sit all day, reading manuals or become defacto tea-makers or errand people for the bosses, will be counterproductive. If possible, government should have inspectors that periodically visit the companies, unannounced, to see for themselves the types of tasks that are assigned to the graduates. For the companies, just because the government pays the graduates a stipend of N25, 000 per month, does not mean that they cannot chip in. Adding additional N10, 000 for a total of N35, 000 per month, so as to beef up the money to a living wage, though not mandatory, will help.

Before anyone poo pooh’ s this initiative, let us consider the alternative- roaming the streets and doing nothing! The program will, albeit briefly, take our brilliant young men and women away from the streets into productive endeavors in banks, factories, industries and the likes. Of course it may not change the fortunes of all of them but as my people would say, “afughu k’emelu, emee k’afulu”. Meaning, you make do with what you have.

One hopes that the government will also set up a post internship program where those that still fail to secure jobs, but show prospects for self-employment, can be advanced some form of uncollateralized loans with little interest to start off.

Finally, I have read that just like everything Nigerian, scammers have started making inroads into the program. Knowing that unemployed graduates are vulnerable, they deceive some of them into thinking that one has to pay to get into the program. Readers must help disseminate the fact that the program is free for every eligible Nigerian graduate. Furthermore, there seems to be some confusion as to the exact amount the government pays the graduates. Some say it is actually N18,000. My question is, which is it?

HERE I STAND

I just read about the death of Dr Dora Akunyili, former minister of information and former director of NAFDAC. She gave national service her best. Mat her soul rest in peace.