From Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, Adanna Nnamani, and Jude Idu, Abuja
The good old apprenticeship system, seen by many as a traditional method of producing millionaires outside of formal education, is allegedly under threat due to social vices like kidnapping, armed robbery, human trafficking, drugs, Internet fraud and political thuggery, among others, in an effort to get rich quickly.
Back then, getting wards to spend years learning from their masters was thought to be a practical way to free families from the bonds of poverty. What lessons were imparted in the past through apprenticeship? The apprentice learned valuable life lessons, including how to be humble, patient, calm, pay attention to detail, have a positive attitude, work hard, be resilient and the art of timing (knowing when to leave).
Today, there is a popular catchphrase among youths in Nigeria. It is called “soft work” or “soft life”, or “baby girl”, a euphemism for sweat-less wealth. With computers and the Internet becoming more addictive with juicier offerings, youngsters seem to have dumped energy-sapping jobs in technical fields for “softer” ones like online betting, online marketing, Internet scamming (Yahoo-yahoo), crypto mining and other commercially-viable activities (legal and illegal) within the virtual ecosystem.
Consequently, ageing automobile mechanics, welders, blacksmiths, panel beaters and other technicians are in a dilemma. They are battling a severe shortage of young apprentices who ought to assist them on the job and possibly take over the vocation when they are old and grey.
A good number of the reluctant few that manage to stay are impatient, indolent, entitled and fixated on scamming customers. They often do not complete their apprenticeship programme before hurriedly-setting up their own outfits where they render poor services that often pit them against their clients.
Unlike in the past when mechanic workshops were vocational centres that produced various technicians, the story is different today as a visit to a typical garage shows a handful of youngsters committed to learning.
The situation is more pathetic in Abuja where youths troop in on a regular basis with an erroneous mindset of making money without sweating.
Monday Isibor, a popular Mercedes Benz mechanic in the FCDA area of Kubwa, told Daily Sun that he had been shopping for reliable trainees for two years to no avail.
He said: “When I was an apprentice in Kano 28 years ago, we were up to 18 apprentices learning the job. We were never fewer than 15 at any point in time. As more people left, more joined. Our boss then organised tests for us to ascertain our capacities and capabilities.
“There was healthy competition. The incubation period was four years minimum. By the time you were done, you could comfortably work on your own. We had enough hands to carry out tasks in other states without compromising standards.
“But today, we’re just four in my workshop. Two apprentices and one man that I hired from another garage to assist me.
“When four customers come at about the same time, we’re overwhelmed. Again, no capable hands to carry out tasks outside the shop. On Saturdays, being the peak days, we often ask clients to leave and return another day because there are no hands to handle the volume of work. Just imagine the revenue loss.
“As the master here, if I had sufficient trainees, all I need to do is coordinate activities and get only involved in tougher tasks. But here am I doing what an apprentice should do.
“I got two young boys earlier but all they loved to do was to deceive my customers with wrong diagnosis just to scam them when I was not around. I had to send them away because they nearly destroyed a client’s car and would have thrown me into crippling debt”.
Ayinla Ayinde,an automobile mechanic, who specialised in the repair of trucks, said he has been without apprentices for over three years.
“I’m 59 years old. My limbs and muscles are getting weak. I need young hands to help me but whenever they hear I’m into truck repairs, they take to their heels. They said the work is for wrestlers and bouncers. “They said they prefer soft work because this is the 21st century, and I asked, won’t trucks be used and repaired in the 21st century? Who would repair them? I’ve acquired some tools to ease the job. In my time as a learner, we used to mount engines with bare hands, today we use a fulcrum. We need funds to improve further,” he said.
Uwa Eke, a specialist in repairing buses and vans, said the apprentice-drought horror takes a frightening dimension with each passing day.
“One 22-year-old boy once came to my shop to learn but asked me to pay him monthly. I was like, are you joking? He said he was dead serious. How can a teacher pay a student to learn? Where is it done? What audacity!
“The fact remains that these kids don’t want stress. But is there gain without pain? Before him, I remember I got one apprentice who stayed for only two months. He just got up one Monday morning and sent me a resignation SMS. He said: ‘Sir, I’m not doing again”. That was all. No accompanying reasons, nothing. That was it”.
Miracle Ene is undergoing a five-year apprenticeship incubation programme at the popular Zuba Mechanic Village, and he says he is intentional about learning vehicle repairs.
“I attended a technical secondary school and since I couldn’t go further, I decided to deepen my knowledge here. I’m proud of my hand work. It was either this or I joined the criminal world. In late 2021, I needed N50,000 to handle my mother’s medicals. I recall asking my friend who I learnt was into all sorts of Internet schemes to help, but he insisted I must dump my mechanic apprenticeship programme and join him before getting his assistance. He said he would mentor me. He said I was disgracing our secondary school set.
“But I refused and, thank God, someone else helped. There is dignity in labour. I can’t survive on making others cry”, he said.
John Ulasi, a former mechanic-turned-barber, said that a petrol accident that nearly blinded him forced him to leave the ‘dirty job’.
“Most works are done with physical strength. No adequate machines to simplify the job. So, the risks are just too high. I ran away. Some have suffered fractured limbs and so on.
“You will be under the hot sun from sunrise to sunset. It is really a hard job. I just had to quit”, he lamented.
Soft loans, modern garages can trigger return to apprenticeship
Jones Ike, a social commentator, has advised government to encourage mechanics and technicians through soft loans so they can modernise their garages and upgrade their operations.
He said: “A boy less than 25 years old has a different mental construct from those of us in our 50s. He’s within the Internet age and their mentality is different. They were not born in the analogue era. They work smart, not hard.
“There should be many government-certified training centres for many of the technicians to upgrade their knowledge and skills. They need to acquire and understand how to use diagnostic machines. The world is changing, we should too. The vulcaniser should not be using rods to hammer tyres off the rims. It’s destructive. You can’t use yesterday’s tools to solve today’s problems and hope to be in business tomorrow. It won’t work. Mechanics and technicians should be loaded with tools to simplify the task. They will attract more learners easily”.
Blame bad leadership, flaunting of ill-gotten wealth for decline – Spare parts dealers
According to Anthony Anyadiegwu, a native of Enugu State’s Ezeagu LGA who deals in batteries at London Line of Apo Mechanic Village, the decline in apprenticeship may be a threat to the economic strength of some eastern states because fewer young people are willing to follow the traditional path of working under the masters (Ogas) for a number of years before becoming ‘free’, depending on the type of trade and experience required.
He, however, disapproved of the practice of sending school-age children to learn a trade that he or she would later regret without a formal education. To him, both should go hand in hand, making reference to some businessmen who failed woefully in managing their wealth or lost out to smart, more educated young men they employed to manage their investments.
Asked why there was a dearth of apprentices nowadays, Anthony said: “You don’t even need to ask that question anymore. I am speaking out of experience and I can tell you for free that I was personally affected because my parents were not buoyant enough to send me to school and I have seen many rich people who made money but rely on educated people to manage their money. Sometimes, legal advisers fabricate lawsuits to ensure that their clients’ money is drained up and so many of them have died out of frustration after losing cases and their properties due to illiteracy.
“So many parents today do not recommend that their children first complete an apprenticeship. They increasingly value formal education because they understand how it will benefit their families’ businesses in future. When these two groups of people are compared side by side, it becomes clear that those who attended school still have an advantage, thanks to their education and experience, and whatever business they run becomes exceptional. I’ve been fervently praying that my kids won’t make the same error I made.
“I can tell you that Igbo people can be found in any corner of Nigeria due to illiteracy. The Hausa and Yoruba are busy studying while we struggle to make money, and at the end of the day, they will control the economy. If not, explain to me why you need to make money while intelligent people decide what you should import or export. In addition, they determine when you receive your products from the ports and whether they need to be cleared. To get their goods out of the ports, certain wealthy but unskilled people are occasionally taken advantage of. It is what I have experienced. Regardless of how much money one has, educated young persons will dictate the pace while working for you.
“Can you tell me why Anambra State, one of the richest states in Nigeria in terms of internally generated revenue (IGR) and the number of millionaires, is also one of the states with the highest percentage of children who are not in school?
“I can probably tell you that, unlike Elon Musk, Robert Kiski and other members of the world’s richest individuals, the typical uneducated billionaire of Igbo descent does not invest his money in technological advancements. When he can afford the services of 20 senior advocates at once, he goes to the village and community and begins acquiring as much land as he can. He would never view it as a waste of money but rather as a source of pride as he battles the entire community for a small plot of land that isn’t even worth a million naira. He ultimately fails and passes away in despair. Consequently, a large number of us from the Eastern region of the country have observed and realised that our issue is simply a lack of education to manage our resources.”
But Mr. Nnadi Chinasa, who is also from Apo Mechanic Village, asserted that not every trade needs a college degree. According to him, the ability to practically disconnect and reassemble a car is what is required in his auto mechanic profession. He said he has seen many mechanical engineering graduates come to the village for practicals.
“So, I believe that impatience and the desire to make quick money are the reasons some people don’t want to embrace apprenticeship. And you are aware that this drives them into human trafficking, political thuggery and kidnapping, to name a few.”
‘Blame masters who renege on apprenticeship agreement’
Divine Chiadikaobi, an automobile engineer from Awgwu in Enugu State, who specialises in fixing car air conditioners, said today’s youth abhor long years of waiting and understudying the master because, most times, their bosses do not keep to the terms of agreement.
He claimed that there were countless instances of masters breaking their commitments, which had greatly influenced the decision of many families to abandon apprenticeship and seeking other ways for their children’s empowerment.
He said: “I was a victim. After I graduated from his shop, my Oga didn’t give me one kobo as settlement; instead, he prayed for me and told me to go work and support myself with the skills I had learned from him. But I was fortunate that folks who attended my graduation raised N200,000 for me and that was how I began my life. I am sharing a store with a friend as we speak, and I am praying to God for miracles so that I can be independent.”
Stressing the importance of education, Chiadikaobi said: “Doing business is beneficial, and many people can’t live without it because white-collar employment is hard to come by. However, I can still affirm that every child should have a formal education as a launching pad for whichever career or trade they choose.
“It is different from when a youngster enters to understudy a master with no prior academic training and is given a blank slate. Some of us who are here are aware of our limitations; there are some things we cannot accomplish without assistance, even with money. It is a fact”.
Mathias Odogwu, another stakeholder, argued that failed government policies and bad leadership also contributed to the decline.
“You know, you can compare and contrast how many years you spent studying a business and how many years you spent participating in politics. You’re here inquiring about the traditional way of getting money when my brother is currently riding in an SUV. One can persevere, if the country’s economy is strong and people have hope of succeeding if there is an enabling environment.”
From the feminine side, Blessing Micheal said some women still believe that Abuja and other major cities in Nigeria were places where quick money could be made, hence choose to engage in prostitution, thereby disrespecting womanhood. According to her, they are those following the conventional apprenticeship route as old fashioned.
“Even in the universities, girls know their way to pass exams. So many do not care to burn the midnight candle nowadays. It is just a few that do not give sex for marks. And you are asking them to embrace apprenticeship?”
It’s well structured and well organised now
Blessing Ugwuodo, the CEO of Springfield Fashion Academy, said although it was a training facility, it was also solving a lot of societal problems.
She said: “Is apprenticeship dying in Nigeria? No, not at all. It only took on a different dimension. First, apprenticeship is about skill acquisition and, in today’s Nigeria, more people are getting skilled in the past 10 years. The difference is that more educated people are going into skill acquisition, unlike years back when young children abandoned education to get skilled under a ‘master’ where they practically grow up and then set up their own businesses. Again, skill acquisition is more structured and well organised, unlike what it used to be.
“At Springfield Fashion Academy, we have people of different ages with different levels of education join our fashion training for different reasons. For example, we have children from age six to 16 (from primary to secondary school), we have ages 18 to 25 years, most of the students in this group have gone through higher education, and are searching for paid employment. The next group are the busy professionals. They are mostly working, married with children and settled in life and, of course, the last group are in their 50s and about to retire.
“There are one and a thousand reasons why people get skilled but I would share a few. Number one is entrepreneurship. Some people desire to launch their own brand or business, but they first want to develop their skills and understand the business of fashion so they can launch, expand and scale up their enterprise.
“Second is lack of paid employment. In today’s Nigeria, having a university certificate is not enough. Having a skill, therefore, provides more options for people. The end game is financial independence. The great thing about skill is that it does not conflict with whatever you do, rather it enhances it.
“Thirdly, people want to explore their creative side. Creative people have been found to be very productive in other areas of their lives. Some just want to explore their passion and in so doing discover they can make money doing what they love. So, they create another stream of income and live better and happier
“Fourth is travelling abroad or what we currently call ‘japa’ syndrome. We have students that want to get skilled as a backup for when they travel abroad for further studies. Having a skill adds value and gives one advantage in life whether at home or abroad. We have some of our students in the UK teaching fashion and using that skill to gain access to greater things. Some design and create and sell online and make money from home while studying”.
“Skill acquisition is the future and the future is now!
“I am adding another dimension: apprenticeship wasn’t paid learning. Under that arrangement, the apprentice would serve the master and, in return, the master would teach him/her what he/she knows. It took long painful years, some spent like seven years before being made ‘free’ to start their own business.
“Now people go to a structured place to learn the same skill, pay for it and get what they want, spending just the right amount of months/years.
“I remember my cousin learnt sewing for five years and after that could not sew much. She had to retrain in a more organised place before making anything meaningful out of that skill she acquired. So, no, apprenticeship is not dying.”