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Nigeria Loses $4.5 Billion Annually to Foreign Artisans

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

These are challenging times for property developers and the entire construction industry value chain due to ongoing uncertainties surrounding the acquisition of a competent and skilled workforce needed for building production processes.

Globally, there are over 100 million construction workers, comprising about seven per cent of the world's labour force.

In Nigeria, the construction industry is estimated to have a market size ranging from $26.9 billion to $40.3 billion and accounts for nine per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

With a population of over 200 million and a housing deficit of 20 million, there is a need for more than 10 million artisans in the market to address the shortfall within the next 20 years. Experts recommend training at least one million artisans annually to meet the existing shortfall.

Like clinical science, the construction sector requires trained human beings to carry out practical work on project sites to bring what has been conceived and designed to reality. High-level manpower is required to deliver quality construction, including middle-level, artisanal, and apprentice workers.

Regrettably, Nigeria often relies on artisans, such as masons, iron benders, tillers, plaster of Paris installers, electricians, AC repairers, interior decorators, carpenters, and plumbers from neighbouring countries who can deliver quality projects.

Lagos, in particular, has over 48,000 ongoing construction projects requiring over 15,000 artisans, while the nation as a whole needs about 1.5 million artisans annually, most of whom are currently imported.

The imported labour force costs Nigeria about $4.5 billion annually. Unfortunately, the decreasing enrolment of pupils in government technical colleges for the training of the needed manpower is also negatively impacting the industry.

A recent visit to Government Technical College Agidingbi in Lagos revealed low registration levels of students and parents for the specialized school, with few students registered for some of the craft subjects.

Contractors and developers often depend on foreign artisans from countries like Togo, Ghana, Benin Republic, and Cameroon to work on housing projects in Nigeria. The construction industry requires hundreds of these artisans for each building site, making it a significant subsector of the economy that could help reduce the country's high unemployment rate, which is estimated to reach 41% this year according to KPMG's report for H1 2023.

However, the President of the Association of Building Artisans of Nigeria (ASBAN), Mr Jimmy Oshinubi, explained that the shortage of local artisans is not the main issue. Instead, those who use artisans prefer foreign workers because they charge lower fees. Nigerian engineers and architects tend to believe that they can do everything alone without the help of local artisans, which is why they opt for foreign workers.

Oshinubi emphasized that artisans are professionals and not just mere tools for engineers and architects. However, some engineers and architects want an artisan that will stay on site and work for meagre pay, which is why they do not patronize local artisans. Oshinubi's concern is that this situation may eventually lead to a repetition of what happened in South Africa and Ghana, where Nigerians were driven out because they took jobs that could have gone to locals.

ASBAN has protested against the influx of foreign artisans and called on the government to encourage the use of local artisans by giving them jobs rather than turning them into Okada riders. The association plans to prepare a blueprint to submit to the incoming federal government administration, highlighting the need to support and encourage local artisans. According to Oshinubi, the government has promised to train artisans and certify them, but they fail to provide them with jobs, preferring to give the jobs to party loyalists and unqualified personnel, which could lead to the continued collapse of buildings across the country.

According to a statement made by an individual, Nigeria has highly skilled and experienced artisans such as tilers and bricklayers, but the construction industry's preference for foreign products is causing a problem. The individual suggests reducing the reliance on imported products and allowing local artisans to work on projects as taxpayers.

Builders, on the other hand, believe that the lack of skilled artisans and technicians is a major obstacle in the construction industry. They blame the collapse of technical education for the difficulty in growing the number of skilled workers required to sustain the industry. Trade schools, in particular, have become a mere shadow of their former selves.

Dr Samson Opaluwah, Chairman of the Council of Registered Builders of Nigeria (CORBON), attributes the dearth of artisans to structural issues within Nigeria's educational system. He explains that before Nigeria's independence, the nation had a system that produced artisans, tradesmen, technicians, and technologists. However, when the country adopted the 6-3-3-4 education system, the technical route was abandoned, and technical schools and polytechnics were integrated into secondary schools. Consequently, technical education lost its appeal, and the number of artisans being produced dwindled.

As a result, Nigeria failed to produce skilled artisans and many craft schools have been converted to secondary technical schools. Even though some individuals acquired skills and became carpenters, plumbers, and bricklayers through trade tests, the production of artisans is still inadequate.

According to Mr Jimmy Oshinubi, some individuals would work for several years before attending technical school for three years and taking an exam called the City and Guilds class two, which would qualify them as technicians. The City and Guilds is a training organization in the UK, and its responsibility has been taken over by Nigeria's West African Examination Council (WAEC). The expert explains that the City and Guilds now only conduct examinations privately.

In the past, there were ordinary technician diplomas and higher technician diplomas, but the production of artisans in the formal sector dried up when craft schools and trade centers experienced low enrollment and were transformed into secondary schools. Artisanal training was left to the informal sector, which was not regulated. Meanwhile, Nigeria's neighbouring countries continued to train artisans, leading to a situation where Nigeria now imports artisans to meet its growing construction industry needs.

The National Board for Technical Education (NBTE) has established the National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF), which formalizes the informal sector and brings it up to par with the formal sector to certify both sectors at skill competency level. The Federal Government has established the National Skills Council and Sector Skills Council, handled by CORBON, to certify and license people under the N-power program.

He hopes that if the NSQF is supported by the government, it will address skills shortages and create more employment opportunities for the youth in rural and urban areas. However, the challenge is that many people enter skilled work by accident rather than by choice, and there is a shortage of skilled workers. Only less than 30,000 people have been licensed under the NSQF, but the goal is to train one million artisans per year to meet the needs of the construction industry.

"He said that the skilled men in the construction industry today are either individuals who, for one reason or another, failed in their businesses or cannot find jobs and are therefore using construction work to make ends meet. They have not received proper training and are only interested in making a living," Nduka explained.

Before the intervention of the National Skills Qualifications Framework (NSQF), Nduka noted that there was no structured approach to training artisans for the Nigerian construction industry. "Initially, we had the trade test, but it became politicized and monetized in a way that people paid money to the Federal Ministry of Trade for certificates. However, a certificate of trade test one did not necessarily mean that the person possessed the required skills and competency."

Nduka also mentioned that some foreign artisans use Nigeria's construction sector as a training ground when they should be doing their practical work elsewhere. This is because the economy is currently booming with many ongoing construction works. "Most Nigerians no longer have the patience to undergo apprenticeship jobs; everyone wants to make quick money," he added.

Nduka believes that the way forward is through the NSQF, which was initiated by the Federal Government in 2014. "In this program, there are levels, and participants must be assessed to qualify. There are practicals and other components involved. If the Federal Government and other levels of government emphasize that only qualified individuals are engaged, people will be encouraged to go for training and become qualified themselves."

"When people see that they can get qualified skilled artisans in Nigeria, the Chinese won't need to bring in their people, and others will find it unprofitable due to stiffer competition," Nduka concluded.

Source: The Guardian

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