The Minister of State for Aviation, Sen. Hadi Sirika recently revealed that the federal government has put in place a policy to regulate the engagement of expatriates in the aviation sector, which it hopes will help to take on more Nigerian professionals in the sector, particularly pilots and engineers. The minister said that with the policy in place, the only areas where expatriates could be engaged would be areas where there are no licensed Nigerian professionals to handle and that the Nigerian government was eager to do what was correct and proper to develop the aviation industry.
This is a heart-warming development which we hope will help in securing job opportunities for Nigerian professionals thrown out of employment by expatriates in flagrant disregard of the country’s expatriate quota policy. There was a time when the problem was lack of indigenous professionals such as aircraft engineers and pilots but the story has changed for the better with the growth that has been witnessed in the sector. For instance, the number of private jets has increased from 20 to 150 over a period of six years while experts have put the growth of the number of commercial airplanes from 20 to 100 within the same period. This, however, has not reflected in the employment of indigenous professionals.
The country used to face a dearth of indigenous young aviation professionals. The noticeable improvement is as a result of deliberate efforts to train more professionals in the sector. About five years ago, the federal government and the Kano State government took steps to train pilots, engineers and aeronautical information officers, amongst others. During this period, the federal government trained at least 127 Niger Delta ex-militants as aircraft pilots and maintenance engineers under the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP) in various institutions in North America, Europe, Asia and South Africa while Kano State trained about 100 youths in Jordan in addition to those trained by aviation agencies, airlines and individuals, giving a combined figure of almost 2,000 personnel so far trained in the sector. Many of those trained have gone on to successfully acquire the Private Pilot Licence (PPL) and Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) which qualifies them to operate airplanes.
Despite the huge investment in the training of these professionals, they have been left to waste away while available jobs have been taken over by expatriates. According to the President, Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Captain Nogie Meggison in a recent interview, there are no fewer than 1,000 foreign pilots engaged by both local and foreign registered airlines and over 500 foreign aircraft engineers employed in the country. This is not acceptable.
The problem as we see it, is largely that of abuse of the expatriate quota. Apart from denying Nigerians the fair opportunity to be employed in the sector, some operators go beyond their legitimate quota and in some cases, deploy unqualified personnel, re-designate them to areas that their skills and competencies do not qualify them for and give them positions beyond their qualification and training. Government must, therefore, review and enforce its expatriate quota policy which will go a long way in ensuring that foreigners do not continue to get the preferential treatment at the detriment of her own qualified nationals. Nigeria is facing a huge unemployment crisis which bulges by the day as universities and other institutions of learning continue to produce graduates. Therefore, any development that compounds the problem as is being witnessed in the aviation sector must be attacked frontally.
We, therefore, call on the government to put in place deliberate policies that will promote and protect airline operators, especially indigenous ones, to put them in a position where they will be able to employ indigenous professionals. Such policies must be designed to also check the influx of foreign pilots and engineers in the industry by stipulating that indigenous and foreign operators must engage indigenous professionals. Similarly, as suggested by the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), the government should compel foreign carriers to set up a line station for aircraft maintenance in the country and employ local engineers to assist in turning around the growth of the sector. We are optimistic that the federal government will fulfil its promise of establishing a national carrier which when in place, will also go a long way in absorbing this army of unemployed professionals to enable them get the requisite experience and also meet prerequisites such as flying time and type-rating to become employable. As a permanent solution, we also call on the government to go beyond the aviation sector but spread the net to other areas such as oil and gas and telecommunications where abuse of the expatriate quota is also prevalent.