Nigeria’s talent exodus could have long-term benefits

Wole Olayinka
By Wole Olayinka

A public relations manager with insiderPR and writes on technology and social issues. He is also the founder of Kurating.com, a platform documenting fine arts and supporting emerging artists in Nigeria. He is on Twitter at @thewoleolayinka.

Posted on Wednesday, 14 September 2022 11:43

Gideon Oladele, a Nigerian artificial limb technician, fixes and couples a prosthesis in a laboratory at the Irede Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria July 14, 2022. REUTERS/Seun Sanni

The geographical area now known as Nigeria has a history of exporting people to the rest of the world.

From the time of the Slave Trades (both Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Saharan), people have left the shores of this environment, either involuntarily or voluntarily,” states policy analyst Cheta Nwanze. A lot has changed over time, but Nigerians are still leaving the country in droves in search of better living conditions; a concept colloquially referred to as ‘japa‘- to run away, in Yoruba.

Home & away

Emigration appears to have seen a significant spike within the last few years. According to the Home Office, the number of Nigerians packing for Britain to study rose by 686% this year, compared to 2019–a record 65,929 students for the year ending in June 2022. Many of these students hope to get jobs and plan to stay put after their studies. In Canada, Nigerians were the third largest group granted permanent residency in 2021.

Since most of those leaving are actively employed in the labour force, businesses are bound to feel the stress of staff loss to emigration. The Guardian Nigeria reports: “Fear has gripped the private sector, especially the services and technology space, following the mass resignation of skilled workforce to seek greener pastures abroad.” It is a tough time for entrepreneurs and human resource managers who grapple with the disruptions created by talent exits. In a market that’s already battling talent shortages, businesses now need to devise coping strategies to fill the widening gaps.

But overall, there may be a bright side to the situation in the long term. Given the right approach, the wave of exits could improve the talent pipeline and strengthen the country’s economy.

It is unlikely that enough people will move to create an emergency in the broad labour market. (Although specific fields, such as healthcare, appear critically threatened.) An estimated 17 million Nigerians are in the diaspora, according to the Chairman of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, but the country still has over 200 million and is rapidly growing. Its population is projected to cross the 300 million threshold around 2036. So there is no real danger of the world’s biggest black nation emptying soon.

Positive outlook

Instead, the wave of exits from Nigeria creates space for new entrants into the labour force, thus potentially alleviating unemployment. The unemployment rate in Nigeria is at a significant high- the country’s bureau of statistics cited 33.3% in its last published figures for the fourth quarter of 2020. A wave of resignations leaves gaps in the labour force that should be filled by the unemployed.

But to ensure a pipeline of capable left-behind talent to fill the gaps being made, the public and private sectors need to work hand in hand to provide training and upskilling of labour at a rate that matches or exceeds the rate of exits. Unfortunately, the rot in the country’s education sector does not inspire much hope, and some fear it’ll be impossible to replace exported talent as the quality of education continues to fall. For example, public university students have been out of school since February 2022 because the academic staff of universities in the country embarked on a nationwide strike.

The outflow of talent also promises a future inflow of potential returnees with world-class education, experiences and an expanded worldview that could benefit the domestic economy. In the 80s, a similar flux of exits was reported- ‘Japa‘ today was ‘check out’ at the time.

And this led to a wave of returns in the 2000s. The country could be looking at a similar situation to benefit its labour force in the years to come. But, of course, this potential mass return depends on a promising economic outlook to attract the Nigerian diaspora back to their roots in the not-too-distant future.

Remittances are also a vital booster to the economy- Nigeria receives the vast majority of remittances to sub-Saharan Africa, valued at $23.1bn at its peak in 2019. Therefore, the wave of exits promises a boost in remittances to the country as more Nigerians settle abroad and send funds to cater to their families back home.

Despite these possible long-term advantages, the massive loss of human capital when the country needs critical interventions across sectors remains a considerable concern. Moreover, if measured empirically, the potential long-term benefits may not outweigh the immediate effects on businesses and the economy.

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