The Role of Vocational and Technical Education in Nation Building: An Engineer’s Perspective by Dr. Ejilah Robinson

The Role of Vocational and Technical Education in Nation Building: An Engineer’s Perspective by Dr. Ejilah Robinson
I consider myself privileged to have been asked to share my thoughts with you on the topic The Role of Vocational and Technical Education in Nation Building: An Engineer’s Perspective”. I admit that I am not an educationist, and really do not have any professional justification for speaking on this subject. All I can claim for myself, however, is an interest in the subject of technical education in the broadest sense of the word as a mechanical engineer.

As a little boy growing up way back in the seventies, I have always found the experience of flying paper kites in windy days, or floating my paper boats in water puddles after torrential rain falls very fascinating! Besides the joy I drew from these favorite pastimes, it gave me a feeling of youthful adventure, that of course triggered the desire in me to grow up to become a pilot or a sailor. I became neither of the two, but rather ended up as a Mechanical Engineer and Engineering Educator. A popular golden aphorism once read;
“Climb high; Climb far, your goal the sky; your aim the star”.
For me no cliché could be better! Yes, I may never have achieved my aim but I reached my goal, because my dreams of becoming an aviator or seafarer never came to pass for a combination of factors, but with hard work and providence, I became something closer to both of them-by the way, aircrafts and ships are both contraptions of mechanical engineering. This -of course- could only be possible through the deliberate investment in education!
My father once said to me that;
“Graduating from school does not mean you are done with learning, but being out of school is in itself a new beginning, it ushers one into the school of life”
Dad’s views were also corroborated by that of Arie Pencovici’s, who once said and I quote;
“Graduation is only a concept, [because] in real life every day you graduate. Graduation is a process that goes on until the last day of your life… [and] If you can grasp that, you’ll make a difference “
I want to believe we all have a measured appreciation of the deeper meaning of this statement. However, for me, education means the upgrading of one’s ability to choose the best alternative available in any circumstance. We all know that experience is indeed the greatest educationist of all!
In approaching this subject, may we first examine some basic elements of society and try to determine the place of education as one of the fundamental elements of any community. First of all, it is pertinent to clearly define education, understand the transformative power of education, vocational and technical education at a glance, appreciate the enormity of the task of nation building, discuss the role of education in nation building, and the gains of vocational and technical education respectively. The word Education is derivative of the Latin word ‘educatio’ meaning ‘to breed, to rear or bringing up. It could take formal or informal settings. With the former, as a system of schooling involving institutionalized teaching and learning, in relation to a curriculum designed for a predetermined purpose. The latter, which takes place outside educational establishments, does not require a specified curriculum.
 The anthropologists agree that there are five basic institutions upon which all human societies are built, and these includes; the familyreligious, economic, administrative and educational institutions. Each is important in its own right as well as in its relationship with the others and each plays an important role in the total life of society. It is important to keep in perspective the inherent role of education in these institutions, and the synergy it generates amongst them. However, for the purpose of this presentation, Mr. Chairman, please permit me to dwell more on education, and what opportunities technical education has in store for our teeming Nigerian youths. However, before we get into the specifics, lets take a cursory look at education as a change process.
Transformative Power of Education.
Investment in education they say pays the highest dividend. This is unarguably correct because education is a vital investment for human and economic development and is largely influenced by the environment within which it exists. You will all agree with me that we are at present living in an inquiring and innovation-oriented society. Hence, the current social demands of the twenty first century would require novelty, creativity, and knowledge integration, research, critical and analytical thoughts to tackle the ever complex and uncertain challenges of the human society.
Therefore, to prepare our children and youth to cope with the present challenges -of unemployment, poverty, hunger, disease, and collapse of useful infrastructure and social amenities- would indeed require the conditioning power of education, to develop analytical and critical thinking, attitude, to build skills and core competences that would make them more flexible and innovative to deal with emerging uncertainty and crises in world around us.
More and more insistently, through pedagogy and effective curriculum designs and delivery, today’s schools and colleges are being charged to produce men and women who can think, who can make new scientific discoveries, who can find more adequate solutions to impelling world problems, who cannot be brainwashed, men and women who can adapt to change and maintain sanity in this age of acceleration. This is the creative and transformative feature of modern educational system.
Mark Twain in his philosophical thinking once declared that, and I quote:
‘There is nothing training cannot do; nothing is above its reach. It can turn bad morals to good, it can destroy bad principles and recreate good ones, and it can lift men into angelship’
Other leading exponents believe that; it is through the educated elite, that global leadership and competitiveness could be achieved in all spheres of human endeavor.
Citing the words of the then British Prime minister, Tony Blair in a speech he delivered at the University of Southampton in 2001.  He said this, and I quote;
“…… There is nothing more important to making Britain a fairer and stronger country. Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people”.
In similar vein, Barack Obama, then a Democratic Presidential candidate, also while giving a compelling speech in a town hall meeting at Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts, Thornton, Colorado, in 2008, once said and I quote in part;
“…In a world where good jobs can be located anywhere there’s an Internet connection— where a child in Denver is competing with children in Beijing and Bangalore — the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge. Education is the currency of the Information age, no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success but a prerequisite”….……”In this kind of economy, countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow….…..We are the nation that has always understood that our future is inextricably linked to the education of our children” ….. “We are the country that has always believed in Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “talent and virtue, needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth or birth”.
Also cast in similar mould, Theodore R. Breton in his survey of 61 countries further substantiated our claim by saying:
“Education has direct and indirect effects on national output…and that educated workers raise national income directly because schooling raises their marginal productivity”.
You all will agree with me that these well-applauded and inspiring speeches from some of the world’s leading personalities, further lent credence to the overarching significance of formal education in our societies. At this juncture, it is pertinent to shade some light on the differences and similarities in vocational and technical education.
“…… There is nothing more important to making Britain a fairer and stronger country. Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people”.
Vocational and Technical Education at a Glance.
It must be mentioned that a subtle relationship exists between vocational and technical education as seen in many academic literatures. Nonetheless, for the purpose of clarity vocational educations could be referred to that skill-based programme designed for sub-professional level education and based on a specific vocation. While, technical education, on the other hand, facilitates the acquisition of practical and applied skills as well as basic scientific knowledge. The underlining difference between the two is that whereas the former is designed for a particular vocation, the latter does not target any particular vocation, but rather provides a general technical knowledge. Hence, every vocational programme is technical in nature, but not all technical education programmes are vocational in outlook. The converging point is in the acquisition of skill-sets and techniques to enable the recipient(s) earn a living.
At the outset of our nationhood, the development of vocational and technical education has being largely influenced by the British system of education, which was regrettably not structured enough to meet our specific national development objectives as encapsulated in the national policy on education of 1998, which -amongst other things – are; to promote a free and democratic society; build a  just and egalitarian society, a united, strong and self reliant nation; foster a great and dynamic economy, and provide a land of opportunities for the citizenry respectively. Hence, it could be seen from the foregoing that, the development of the economy and the crave for self reliance and self-sustainability provides the needed momentum to specifically accomplish the national objectives of vocational and technical education, which includes the need to; acquire vocational and technical skills; expose students to career awareness by exploring usable options in the world of work; enable youths to have an intelligent understanding of the increasingly complexity of technology; and stimulate creativity.  The ensuing paragraph will briefly discuss the historical and political experience of building the Nigerian nation state.
The Daunting Task of Nation Building.
 We may wish to ask, what does it take to build a nation? It is certainly not enough to go through a discovery process in order to define what kind of nation we want to build. Getting there is the challenge! For instance, creating a blueprint for a building project is meaningless unless the structure is actually built. So it is with a nation.  Nigeria is a good example of that, as it deals with major issues of poverty, youth unemployment, income disparities, ethnic and religious tensions, gender inequalities, crime rate, illiteracy, electoral malpractices, corruption, disease, and the pangs of insurgency and insecurity.
However, if nation building is the processes geared towards recomposing the nation’s institutions to reflect the wishes, needs and aspirations of its citizenry, then we must remind ourselves most frankly that, in a nation such as ours that is bedeviled with a myriad of challenges, makes nation building a herculean task.
History has demonstrated the difficult, complex, and varied developments needed to unite a people under a government and to create among them a stable cultural, economic, political, and social community. The process has been especially strenuous where the people to be united have large diverse groups, distinguished by their own customs, language, or separate identity.
For instance, when Nigeria achieved independence from Great Britain in October 1960, like other countries decolonized in Africa, it was a nation in name only. It existed as a political and legal entity, not as an effective and emotive identity. Ethnic loyalty took precedence over national identity. Their identity as Nigerians lay in the shadow of their tribal and parochial allegiances.
The inherited post-independence colonial structure maintained ethnic isolation and reinforced it with regionalism. Its educational system was neither designed to promote national cohesion, nor spur rapid economic and technological development. With the larger ethnic groups dominating the separate political regions, the colonial experience provided little basis for fusing ethnic groups in any common sense of nationalism and hence mobilizing the entire populace for rapid national socio-economic transformation proved difficult. Hence, this brings into perspective the role of education in nation building as a sub-title to be dealt with in the ensuing discussion.
Role of Education in Nation Building.
I would like to submit to you that education is one of the most important foundations for a strong and vibrant nation. It is certainly an investment, and not a fiscal liability. Both knowledge and skill acquisition (i.e. human capital) is one of the four types of fixed capitals that drives economic development, and can be acquired through direct investment.  In the words of Adam Smith, human capital is;
“The acquired and useful abilities of all the inhabitants or members of the society,”
Since education and skills training provides the pathway to any productive nation-building enterprise, the following points will further lend credence to the unquestionable place of education in our society;
Firstly, education creates an enlightened society.  This is a crucial prerequisite to nation-building because the more a people become enlightened the more they would refrain from nefarious practices that will endanger the nation-building efforts.
Secondly, nation-building requires a ‘meritocratic’ bureaucracy in order to make the state’s institutions effective.  Therefore, with education, the country will have the best human resources that are competent enough to conduct the day-to-day affairs of the state.
Thirdly, nation-building requires a democratic society that allows the contribution of all, rich or poor, and strong or weak.  With education, there will always be an increase in democratic participation.
Fourthly, education is very crucial in the formation of cross-cutting cleavages that embrace diversity.  Accepting differences therefore is very important to nation building because until we accept our differences and come together to build the nation, progress will never be made.  With education, this fear is allayed.
Fifthly, education creates a large middle-class (professionals, teachers, doctors, technicians etc).This class is very important to nation-building because they provide the necessary expertise that is needed to building a nation.  This is the reason why emphasis has been placed on education, because an educated society is always a strong society, and a society that is set for development.
Mr. Chairman, justice will not to be seen to be done, if the specific gains of vocational and technical education are not mentioned in this paper.
Vocational and Technical Education: What Gain?
I can’t agree less with Jonathan Sacks of the Action Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, who succinctly shared the Jewish philosophy on poverty and alleviation, with these moving words:
“Poverty, for the rabbis, was a curse, with no saving graces. Poverty does not ennoble; it demeans. Therefore, the poor must be helped to escape from their poverty—through education, training, the creation of employment opportunities, and help in starting their own businesses”
This wise saying to me presents, the ‘blueprint’ of global action against the scourge of poverty today. I must say no idea could be more fitting to this paper, as it underscores the exemplary role of vocational and technical education in national development. In the light of the aforementioned, the points raised here-in, intends to outlines the outstanding contributions of technical education to national development, and they are as follows:
  1. Employment and wealth creation; Vocational and technical education provide ample employment opportunities for the teeming unemployed youths –be them graduates or school drop-outs! The practical skills acquired through vocational and technical education programme will enable them function profitably in society, and chart-out a new career path for them.
  2. Increased pace of technological innovations. A well-coordinated technical programme equips a nation with the requisite manpower required for its technological transformation. The technical knowledge, skills and competencies acquired would increase the pace of technological innovation and/or improvement in the service, and industrial sectors of the national economy to boost service deliveries, facilities maintenance and product development.
  3. Improvement of living standards. Vocational and technical education seeks to assist a nation maintain its material civilization by enabling individual keep pace with the rapidly changing industrial and technological development. In the course of the technological and economic transformation of a nation, skills acquired through vocational and technical education programmes, on a massive scale, will boost development in all sectors of the nation’s economy. As agricultural productivity is increased, medical science is developed, and the transport, building and construction industries and public amenities are adequately maintained, there will be a commensurate improvement in the standard of living of the citizenry.
  4. Promotes political stability. Massive self-employment opportunities derived from skill-sets acquired through vocational and technical education programmes, creates an avenue of coping with the pressure of unemployment. This help in curbing rise in crime and other social vices. According to Tony Blair;
“….. [In] a good school, children gain the basic tools for life and work…..And they learn the value of life: [and] what it is, to be responsible citizens who give something back to their community”.      
Furthermore, it is not in doubt that, as the population engages in meaningful and productive socio-economic activities, the gap between the rich and poor tend to close, and the citizenry are less likely to become restive, but rather, are more peacefully and favorably disposed to civil authority, create the conditions of political stability of nations.
Concluding Remarks.

Distinguished Chairman, I wish to conclude from the foregoing that, vocational and technical education spurs national development.  No nation can be built without education.  With education, professionals are nurtured; living standards are improved, mass poverty is minimized, disease is reduced and controlled, and human and institutional capacity are built and efficiently utilized, and employment opportunities for wealth creation are generated to grow the nation’s economy.

Dr Robinson Ejilah is teh Deputy National Chairman, Nigerian Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


  1. Tribalism/ethnicity became an official code of bias by the statement, “I am first a Yoruba man before I became a Nigerian”. Who said this? To who?
    Commendable is this write up! The one and only way we, as a country, can make any progress in technology is when Engineering becomes independent and self regulatory with COREN becoming an independent taskforce and Ingeniers having powers to stop a project until proper procedures are followed.
    As long as politicians continue see contracts as ends – not means – and continue to meddle in engineering processes and procedures for which they have no generic or functional competence; money shall continue to leave the country via capital flight on the construction of substandard projects, buildings shall continue to fail and fall to kill poor people, trains shall continue to derail, air crashes shall kill more elites, we shall eternally be indebted to chinco, and there is no end in sight.
    The ill is such as to affect everybody equally, irrespective of whatever bias.


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