How Nigerians deal with underemployment
This week, while I was walking down the street, a woman I had never met before came up t o me a nd a s ked me a question.
“Do you know where I can get work?” she asked.
She was very neat, smartly dressed in a business suit, black shoes and a matching bag. I was anything but, being gym-ready in exercise gear, so it’s a wonder that she chose me to talk to, but also a mark of the desperation of many Nigerians for jobs that they’ll walk up to strangers on the street on the off chance they’ll find work as well as a new friend.
“I am not sure,” I said. “What are your qualifications?”
“I have a degree in education. I am a teacher.”
I told her I was sorry, but that I don’t have any ability to recruit teachers and I don’t know anything she could do other than asking around the schools in Abuja about any vacancies.
“I don’t mind, anything is fine. I will do anything,” she replied.
Nigerians are anything but lazy. If you asked me to describe the Nigerian mindset in five words, perhaps the first word would be industrious. It manifests in the rampant opportunism of hawkers in Lagos go-slows, in the way that no Nigerian ever has just one business if he or she could have four or f ive (no matter how complementary), in the way that every friend is a potential business partner. I have friends whose businesses started at boarding school with an exchange for forbidden foods; I have friends who are oil consultants, frozen shellfish salesmen and fertiliser traders all in one. But for all this, there’s a problem: there aren’t enough jobs to account for the enormous will to work.
This is how Nigerians who have qualifications and college degrees end up handing out résumés in traffic jams. This is how Nigerians who could be computer engineers are security guards on compounds, and child psychology graduates become maids. This is how, at the sharpest and grimmest end of deprivation, disenchanted youths see life in Boko Haram as preferable to a life that can’t offer the opportunities your brain and work ethic deserve.
At the end of the fourth quarter of 2014, unemployment was 6.4%. Underemployment, however, was around 18%. To distinguish: a man sitting compiling stats for the Nigerian government in an off ice would be considered employed; a man sitting selling mangoes by the roadside a few days a week is underemployed; a man sitting not selling mangoes by the roadside every day of the week is unemployed.
They may not be underemployed right this minute given the chronic fuel scarcity in the Nigerian capital, but Abuja’s black market fuel sellers are a perfect example of this. When fuel tankers return to the city, they’ll return to their villages, jerry cans in hand, and wait for some other hustle.
A new government i s coming, but with dwindling cash reserves, a widening budget deficit and low oil prices, job creation will be a struggle. Nigeria’s underemployed are always hopeful, a l ways have an eye on the next naira and yet are so often disappointed.
A man carries jerry cans to search for fuel to sell in Lagos on 21 May.