Informal Apprenticeship System: the politics of shoe shining

Source of image: pixabay.com

Recently I was involved in a group discussion on a news report of a Federal House of Representative Member (albeit the Commissioner of Higher education) that donated shoe shining accessories to 5,000 youths in Borno state. Three key issues emanated from the discussion, and they were:

  1. What is schooling?
  2. What are vocational skill?
  3. What is the significance of vocational skills acquired from an informal apprenticeship system?

Firstly, the idea of “schooling” being only within the four walls of a building is too deep in the Nigerian psyche, hence our inabilities to address a lot of our educational issues in the country. The idea of public spaces as places of public pedagogy, where knowledge exchange happens among the public does not resonate with many people. And this lack of acceptance of public pedagogy seems to be part of the reasons why the informal apprenticeship sector is not accorded its due place in the country’s educational system. Perhaps, it is one of the reasons why our traditional farmers, herders, bakers etc. have not been able to evolve their value propositions to the larger society because without further acquisition of knowledge and skills in any walk of life, there is the likelihood that such a sector would remain primitive or underdeveloped in its service provisions or products supply. For instance, why is it that local sheep herders are not producing wool or why are local bakers not baking cakes or pastries on a large scale to sell? This is where further education, particularly with regards to Technical, Vocational Education and Training (TVET) can come in to help in addressing knowledge and skills gaps within the informal apprenticeship sector.

Secondly, what are vocational skills? For the purpose of this post I will use the definition of study.com that says “Vocational skills are skills you gain toward becoming knowledgeable in a specific trade or profession.” Furthermore, the study.com’s definition says that “…vocational skills can be obtained through hands-on experience on the job. However, these skills may also be obtained at a vocational school.” Going by the study.com’s definition, three important characteristics of vocational skills can be identified and these are:

  • Vocational skills are an accumulation of skills gained through undergoing tutelage under a more knowledgeable individual in a particular skills domain, i.e. carpentry or plumbing.
  • They can be acquired informally through informal apprenticeship by learning from a ‘master’ or through family tutelage – this was the common practice among different ethnic groups in pre-colonial and colonial eras in Nigeria. For instance, drummer families in Yoruba land use a generic prefix to their names “Ayan”. For example, one would see names like Ayanwale and Ayandiran. Hence, Fafunwa’s History of Education in Nigeria (pp.32-34, 2005) states that “…Sons of drummers mostly follow the paternal profession…” Furthermore, it states that:
…hundreds of Nigerian communities…continue to utilise the apprenticeship system as a vital medium for vocational education. Indeed, were it not for this traditional system of education which still absorbs millions of Nigerian youths, whether literate or non-literate, there would be millions instead of thousands of unemployed young men and women in Nigeria today. What the country needs is a re-organisation of its educational system in such a way as to integrate the traditional and modern apprenticeship systems into the overall educational process.
One very significant point that should be mentioned about the traditional educational system is the provision it makes for the training of the handicapped person…are taught sedentary occupations such as weaving, or carving or blacksmithery. Such persons are also often trained as priests, barbers, native doctors and the…

However, it is important to note that the National Policy on Education (2013) recognises all these different routes to vocational skills acquisition and makes provisions for them in Section 59, where it states that:

The National Vocational Qualification Framework (NVQF) is a system for the development, classification and recognition of skills, knowledge and competencies acquire by individuals, irrespective of where and how the training or skill was acquired. The system gives a clear statement of what the learner must know or be able to do, whether the learning took place in a classroom, on-the job, or non-formal. The framework indicates the comparability of different qualifications and how one can progress for one level to another.

Lastly, is the issue of the importance of vocational skills acquired through an informal apprenticeship program, a common practice in Nigeria’s vocational skills sector. To begin with, most trade skills in Nigeria in fields like auto mechanic, carpentry, bricklaying and plumbing are acquired through the informal apprenticeship system. Likewise, low-level skills like shoe shining and mending are acquired informally by most cobblers in the country. Hence, this brings me back to the issue of the politician in Borno state that donated shoe shining kits to 5,000 youths in the state.

Having done away with the idiosyncrasies and ludicrousness of politics in Nigeria, I present my argument purely based on looking at vocational skills acquisition and entrepreneurship within the informal apprenticeship system. Hence, my argument that: if the people – the 5,000 Youths – already have the skills to shine and repair shoes and they are supported with the necessary tools to deliver such services, particularly as a short term solution to reducing mass unemployment among the youths, then there is nothing wrong with such a program because it is a simple way of supporting the informal apprenticeship sector, which according to a 2015 World Bank’s report predominantly makes up Nigeria’s vocational skills acquisition sector and is usually left underfunded or unsupported by the government (PDF). More importantly, if there is an existing market for those youths in the state or surrounding states, then providing such a little support on a large scale gives them the opportunity to start adding value to society, which invariably will help in improving their self-esteem and dignity as meaningful contributors to society’s socio-economic wellbeing.

However, there was the argument that they have to go back to (vocational) school to learn how to make shoes, if they are to add value to society. While I can see the rationale behind the view I do not accept that it has to be that way, as adding value to society as a shoe shiner and going back to ‘school’ do not have to be mutually exclusive. And more importantly, individuals are at liberty as adults to decide what form or shape they would like their lifelong learning to take, either formally or informally and what they would like to learn.

Furthermore, shoe making involves not just a higher level of knowledge and skills set compared to shoe shining and mending, other factors like government’s policy on importation of shoes and their allied materials are important, as well as the local availability of material supplies and costs of production. And there is the reality of price and quality competition – will the locally made shoes be able to compete favourably with the imported ones?

Perhaps, tapping further into the informal apprenticeship sector might offer better value and returns on investment than trying to invest in a training scheme that might take couple or more years to complete with little economic returns to show for it. Even knitting of caps and trading – two trades that are common in the northern part of the country – might offer better value added service and entrepreneurship opportunities to some of the youths than going back to ‘school’ in the context of this discussion.

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5 Comments

  • Addendum to my earlier post:
    The tools shown above should have been that for “shoe shining” not for plumbing as they are not same.
    I repeat shoe shining is different from shoe making. Aba boys ate not aboki shining shoe, oyato gan

    • The picture of the tools used in the blog post represents the concept of apprenticeship as discussed in the post. I am sure I made a categorical distinction between ‘shoe shining’ and ‘shoe making’. Perhaps, you missed the paragraph where I wrote “Furthermore, shoe making involves not just a higher level of knowledge and skills set compared to shoe shining and mending, other factors like government’s policy on importation of shoes and their allied materials are important, as well as the local availability of material supplies and costs of production. And there is the reality of price and quality competition – will the locally made shoes be able to compete favourably with the imported ones?” Also, it is important to make it lucid that ‘shoe shining’ was just the premise with which I chose to address a fundamental flaw in the vocational skills acquisition sector in the present educational system in Nigeria, the blog post is more focused on the challenges facing the informal apprenticeship sector in the country and some of the strategies that can be used to address them.
      On your last sentence “Aba boys at(r)e not aboki shining shoe, oyato gan”, while it’s not how I would category any group of individuals, I have chosen to respond to it for posterity’s sake with regards to the main topic of discourse in the blog post “informal apprenticeship system”. It is to be noted that when providing structure and support for the informal apprenticeship system in Nigeria, the government will have to factor in key parameters like the historical antecedents of different communities, towns and cities in relations to which trades and crafts they are known for and/or they still actively engage in. This approach is important so that the structure and support to be provided will be localised and be fit for purpose both in terms of easy access to skilled personnel, interested apprentices, as well as growing local economies and the indirect re-distribution of income through sustainable community based educational and economic intervention programs. For instance, Abeokuta can become the hive for tie and dye training while Lagos Island can focus on its massive baking and trading industries. Same thing with places like Aba, Onitsha, Kano etc. I’m convinced that in every community there are different vocational skills that either need promoting and preserving due to their economic and educational values and/or due to their cultural and historical importance – which eventually would help in improving the general wellbeing of the people.
      Thanks for reading my post.

  • Thanks a million for this incisive master piece. But, the issue here is not about shoe shining etc. The problem is the large turn out for such programme. Before people can subscribe to such venture there is extreme lack which will make them venture into such programme in large number. 5000 youths is not a joke, it simply shows there had been problem unsolved for a long while. Then, if show shining is that good and interesting; I will be calm if the number includes the member of the senators immediate family. It’s so sad that this is what the people are worth in the eyes of their leaders.

    • It’s a known fact that Nigeria is on the wrong side of all socio-economic indexes that relate to employment, education, literacy, health, poverty etc. Hence, there’s no doubt that any form of succour provided by any individual or institution in the country would attract huge patronage, however, this blog post was not meant to address some of the bigger social issues in the country but to create an environment to share and discuss the potential socio-economic and educational impacts and benefits of supporting the informal apprenticeship sector in the country.
      Thanks for reading the post.

  • The lawmakers gesture is merely tokenistic and clearly for political reasons. Brushes and polishes in the hands of youth isn’t a good thing if it’s badly managed. In this case, there appears to be no management at all.

    Vocational skills can be the driver of the state’s economy if they are helped to secure markets to supply and improve the quality of training.

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