‘We can’t solve unemployment problem by having graduates carrying CVs from ministry to ministry’
by KEHINDE AKINTOLA
October 8, 2017 | 2:48 am| | | Start Conversation
Stephen Ocheni, the newly appointed minister of State for Labour and Employment, a professor of Public Accounts and a seasoned administrator, in this interview with KEHINDE AKINTOLA, among other issues, speaks on how best to reposition public service for better productivity. Excerpts:
What experience do you bring on-board as the Minister of Labour and Employment?
My accounting background started years before now. I started my career as a lecturer in Accounting at the Federal Polytechnic, Idah, Kogi State, where I spent an average of nine years before I proceeded or transferred my service to Kogi State Civil Service specifically. Having served in the state civil service for some time, then of course I moved in tradition with the civil service, I secured transfer to the federal civil service until 2013 when I took a decision to go back to academics where I started from. And that’s how I went back to Kogi State University.
In 1989, I had gone to Enugu State University of Science and Technology as it is known today, then it was Anambra State University of Technology. In continuation of my academic career, after my Masters Degree in Enugu State University where I studied Finance and Banking, then I proceeded to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where I obtained my Degree in Philosophy in Financial Management so that is how it has been all along.
Professionally, I’m a Fellow of Association of Nations Accountants of Nigeria, a professional body that I joined since 1995. I’m also a Fellow of the Chattered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria; I’m a Fellow of the Chattered Institute of Economics of Nigeria; I’m also a Fellow Chattered Institute of Public Administration of Nigeria. I’ve gone round on international travels to many countries on some Diplomatic assignments in the course of my official assignments in the Diplomatic sector. I have published six academic textbooks as part of my contribution to knowledge and I want to thank God at this point and I want to commend and appreciate the good leadership of our able President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari for finding me worthy to serve in his cabinet as a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. So, I promise and pledge that I will contribute my best to justify the confidence reposed in me by this administration.
How do you intend to bring to bear your intellectual capacity into Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment?
You are aware that capacity building is an integral part of the civil service, especially if we must develop. It does not mean that because I am a professor, my only contribution will be in the area of training and capacity building. I am also an administrator considering my experience working in different sectors of this country. I want to assure you that in the Ministry of Labour and Employment, just like any other ministry, we are going to strengthen capacity training because this Ministry has a lot of potentials for training of its staff. The Ministry has a unit responsible for training called staff welfare and training unit and is situated in the Department of Human Resources Management. It also has a Labour Institute which is a training arm of this Ministry. It is my desire to ensure that this training institute is strengthened further to offer programmes and award certificates that are not only needed in the Labour ministry, but will be of immense benefit to other ministries and agencies in the entire public service. For instance, if you are running a certificate in Labour Inspection or in any other aspect of Labour and management, we can strengthen the same institution in collaboration with other government agencies that are responsible for the accreditation of such programmes such that qualifications obtained from there will be acceptable to other employers of labour in the country. We are going to do this by collaborating with institutions like the National Board for Technical Education. We can appeal to them to come and inspect the facilities in our training institute and tell us what we need to do to meet their standard. If we are able to meet their standard, we may aspire to award diploma certificates that are comparable with the standard of diplomas awarded by Polytechnic and colleges of technologies in the country. By so doing, we are strengthening the institutional capacity of the training institute and at the same time, producing graduates that are acceptable to other sectors of the economy. We must not train ourselves for only where we are and our staff for only the Labour ministry. We will try as much as possible to diversify the knowledge that will be acquired from that institute so that they will be of benefit to other employers. There are other short seminar and trainings that can improve on the employee productivity. We should, as much as possible be able to embrace the private sector orientation. When you come into office every morning, there should be daily target for civil servants. There is going to be a total reorientation in the ministry if we must attain the goal of economic recovering and growth plan of the President. All of us we must work hand in hand to ensure the success of this economic recovery and growth plan and how do we contribute. It is not for the politicians alone, neither is it for public office holders alone. Civil servant has a role to
play in the realisation of the objective of government plan for total economic recovery of this country. When you come to the office, ask yourself a question, have I attained my target for today? So, we are going to draw work plan and target for every cadre of civil servants in this ministry, so that when you assume duty in the morning, you should know what task you are to accomplish because by doing that, you are contributing to productivity and contributing to the gross domestic product of this country. Most times, we complain that our salary is poor, but we don’t ask what is our contribution to earning capacity of this country.
How do you intend to help address the issue of poor funding of the ministry, considering the critical role it occupies in the economy?
This ministry occupies an integral position in the public sector of this country. Any Ministry that interfaces with unions and others to ensure that there is industrial harmony, it is a very important ministry like others. Like I said, improvement in budgetary allocation to ministries is a collective responsibility of all of us. When I assumed duty here some few weeks ago, I made it very clear to the Directors during the various briefings that we have undertaken in the short period that we all have a duty to ensure that we improve in the budgetary allocation of this ministry. When it’s time for budget, it is not enough to fold your hands and say it is the duty of the budget office and then, when they finish and submit their proposals, then you start asking questions, what happened that my activities were not captured for the subsequent years? But the question is, did you make any input? A budget cycle has three stages: the preparation stage, the approval stage and then the implementation of course. Budget is one of my key areas as a professor of public sector accounting. I’ve taught this course at both postgraduate and Masters degree levels. If we must
attain a particular height in our budgetary allocation, then we must be ready to participate in all the processes. At the point of Budget preparation then we should be able to see our proposals from our various units to the coordinating department, that is the department of finance and account. You should be able to identify your needs, it’s like you need something but you don’t know what you want, how will you get it? So you have to identity your needs first. It’s like you want to prepare your final account for a year but you don’t even know the transactions you have undertaken for the period, can the final account be ready? It’s impossible.
So you have to identify all such documents, you have to know all your purchases and sales, your overhead cost, you put them together then of course, by the time you merge your purchases with your sales, then you have the gross profit, then your net profit and at the end of the day, you’ll be able to have your income statement because you are able to identify what and what you have done. The same thing I should be able to know if as a Head of Department, I should be able to know what my working tools are; what my very requirements are; what my constraints for the previous year are; that is what informed new decisions in budget policy formulation, what are the constraints in the previous year? Then you bring it out and quantify it and then you make an input. Let me tell you one thing, why does government undertake budget? Sometimes, some of us think government is preparing budget annually because it is annual ritual, No, it is not so. The budget is a plan, it’s a financial plan designed in anticipation of an activity to be undertaken in the subsequent year.
Now, coming to the issue of why does government prepare budget? Let’s start from the family circle, if you have everything you need, just like I told my distinguished senators during my screening, that if you have everything it takes to run your family, even if your wife says she needs N1million for her kitchen, and your children need so so so amount for their school fees and you know you have everything, then of course, you need to prepare a budget, because you need everything at your disposal. But no government, no institution, no individual has all it takes to run a unit or any unit that is entrusted under him, no government all over the world and that is why a budget is prepared.
Since you don’t have enough but out of the little scarce resources at your disposal then you have to identify priorities that’s the main basis of the concept of budget. You have to identify priorities out of the whole lot of problems you have to solve, a whole lot of the projects for next year, may be you cannot even finance half of it, maybe you have a projected income, but since you don’t have enough resources to cope with a whole lot of requirements and all you need to run your organisation for the next year, then it is wise. You don’t need to go to school to go and study or read PhD before you know this, that’s why I used the example of a family. It is wise, right, it is professional for you to say okay out of all these let me take this one, this one is very big. As a government security is a priority, healthcare is a priority, agriculture is also a priority, because you must feed the nation, of course my own ministry is apriority because you must ensure there’s industrial harmony in good workplace environment. So by the time you identify all these out of the few that you have to do and bring out the few that can be accommodated in the next year within a limit of projected revenue for that year then you are already involved in budgeting. Like in the ministry like you said, the budget shortfall or poor budgetary allocation for Ministry of Labour and Employment, I don’t think it’s like that to us alone.
Reasons are very obvious; you have been reading newspaper, what I do, I go and read BusinessDay to know about the economy of your nation. Then you ask yourself what’s the price of crude oil today compared to what was the market trend as at 10 years ago, what is the revenue of this nation, it has been declining but government must live up to its expectations, struggling to live up to these expectations. Trying to meet up, so I cannot say I’m in the Ministry of Labour then I must have everything we need, no; but the only thing I can assure you is we’ll step up action towards ensuring that we meet up with the deadline for submission of our budget then we articulate our needs, we’ll prioritise where we also work very hard to ensure implementation.
Unemployment has been a major challenge in this country; so how do you intend to address this hydra-headed challenge in line with the mandate of your Ministry?
As a ministry, we will work seriously within our efforts towards ensuring realisation of the mandate of this ministry. Every ministry has a mandate that has been handed down to it. I want to clarify the issue of employment because I don’t want our unemployed graduates to believe that this ministry is ministry of employment. So if I go there today I should be able to come out with employment letter but the ministry is to play its traditional role taking all necessary steps to ensure that it interfaces between the employer and employee. So the Ministry of Labour is a ministry that actually stands between employer and employee trying to ensure that agencies that are responsible for employment undertake its project and take it seriously and also ensure that employees are adequately taken care of. That the workplace and productivity of employee is being vigorously pursued and that employees are encouraged to contribute to the growth and development
of this country, and the work environment is conducive to the attainment of government goal in this direction. And the ministry does this by intervening in different areas of crises by ensuring that there is industrial harmony, that there is peace in the workplace. And of course, I want us to understand that when we talk of employment, we should be able to educate ourselves and tell our brothers and sisters who are yet to be employed that we should emphasis strategies that can earn us employment sustainability, the private sector orientation. If I can embark on some skills acquisition programmes where I can become self- employed and subsequently become an employer of labour even if it is one or two, government will give you necessary attention. Government will support you to be able to sustain yourself in that direction. So we should not focus attention 100 percent on civil service or public service employment. As much as government is doing everything possible to reduce the rate of unemployment, we also should think seriously toward the direction of self-employment, so that we can contribute to development of the private sector. If you look at the economy of United States of America today, over 70 percent is private sector orientation, it’s private sector driven. So we should try to see the area we can help the government to solve the problem as well, rather than when we graduate we are all waiting, we carry our CVs from one ministry to another, I don’t think that is the best
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