No one can deny that the private sector plays a key role in a nation’s economic growth. This has been spectacularly demonstrated in China in the last two decades where an improved environment for business productive activities led to massive economic growth through increased jobs, more investment and innovation, increased goods and services. This is not just an example for countries everywhere, but possibly a model for countries where business needs to step up to an important role of driving not just economic growth but all-round national development.
What has been the role of business in getting Nigeria to where it is today? The role of business in Nigeria is traditionally seen in terms of its contribution to Gross National Product (GNP). The extractives industry, crude oil production to be precise, has dominated GNP in the last 50 years although agriculture remains the largest employer of labour. However the industries focused on service rather than goods provision have not fared as well and it is only in the last decade for example, that the banking sector can be considered to have come into its own. Beyond its wealth creation role, the private sector has also been seen as the alternative employer, and in some cases a better paying one, to the traditional boss that is Government. Thousands of Nigerian youth have found employment in the oil industry, the banking and financial services industry, and more recently the private education sector. The Nigerian private sector has become a major source of employment creation. And yet, this is hardly sufficient.
In the more developed economies that Nigeria is striving to emulate, business is just as well known for the technical innovation role that it can play. And adequate human resources skills are a recognized precondition to dynamic research and development activity in any industry. However the average company recruiting candidates for the basic junior level professional positions complains that there is a dearth of skilled candidates to adequately fill these positions. At the most basic level therefore, improving workforce capacity and capability is necessary to improve the quality of goods and services already being produced and this would in turn translate to increased GNP and eventually to an improved economy.
It is not enough for a few companies to train a couple of staff on a semi-regular basis however. To foster the kind of competition that will strengthen the private sector, all potential employees need to be more competitive in the skills they can offer. This means having, on a national level, a highly skilled work force. Contrary to traditional thinking, this is not merely a question of ‘education’ to be left to the universities and other tertiary institutions. Though the role business can play in human capital development in Nigeria is now attracting more attention, many companies are a long way from realizing the great potential there is for them to contribute in this regard. When it was understood in the extractives industry that opposition from local communities can disrupt operations and lead to revenue loss, some companies undertook technical training and capacity building initiatives as part of CSR programs aimed primarily at improving relations with host communities. However there is real value for the company in such initiatives beyond risk mitigation. It is in the interest of business for example, to be able to find capable and well-trained staff in the communities in which they operate and the Nigerian Local Content Act cannot be fully implemented in the absence of qualified local staff and companies to meet the demands of the industry.
Companies can contribute to the development of a skilled national workforce by adopting inclusive business practices which marry increasing profits to maximizing social impact and empowering people to seek financial independence through employment. Besides providing continuous professional training for staff career advancement, companies can commit to supporting vocational training programs initiated by the public sector or provide similar programs themselves and thereby encourage entrepreneurship. They could develop partnerships with the academia or with technical schools to offer for research and development programs or other industrial training opportunities to undergraduates and graduates alike. Robust industrial training schemes for example would ensure the development of the kinds of skills they require for their business. In other words, there are commercial imperatives which should make every business take a serious interest in the skills development aspect of national development. The capacity building gap will be filled by businesses, not government, because it is in their interest to do so.
However it is not only company bottom lines that are important. The truth is, the complex social problems affecting Nigeria, or any other country for that matter, cannot be addressed without the contributions of various key stakeholders, including those from the private sector. Interestingly developing a strong skills base has positive implications not just for economic growth and development, but also for political development. This is because management and other leadership skills learnt and implemented in the private sector are useful and transferable to the public sector through competent and highly skilled persons who cross over to assume public office. Therefore beyond helping to push for policies and rules that will move the country towards democracy and openness, business may well be able to teach government a thing or two about accountability and transparency.