Aviation industry in Nigeria is, again, experiencing pilots’ glut. There are about 500 unemployed professional pilots in the system today. The number of seasoned /experienced pilots who are jobless stands at about 100, while about 400 are fresh, newly licensed commercial pilots just out of flying schools.
Economists distinguish between various overlapping theories of unemployment, including structural unemployment and frictional unemployment.
Structural unemployment occurs when a labour market is unable to provide jobs for everyone who wants one because there is a mismatch between the skills of the unemployed workers and the skills needed for the available jobs. Structural unemployment is hard to separate empirically from frictional unemployment, except to say that it lasts longer.
Structural unemployment may also be encouraged to rise by persistent cyclical unemployment: if an economy suffers from long-lasting, low aggregate demand, it means that many of the unemployed become disheartened, while their skills (including job-searching skills) become “rusty” and obsolete.
Frictional unemployment exists because both jobs and workers are heterogeneous, and a mismatch can result between the characteristics of supply and demand. Such a mismatch can be related to skills, payment, work-time, location, seasonal industries, attitude, taste, and a multitude of other factors. New entrants (such as graduating students) and re-entrants can also suffer a spell of frictional unemployment.
The unemployment situation of Nigerian pilots is both structural and frictional. With less than 300 flying hours, and no jet experience, very few airlines are attracted to freshly licensed pilots.
The majority of the fresh pilots are trained in flying schools abroad (mainly USA, & South Africa). About 90 of the unemployed are trained in Nigeria. However, in total, about 500 pilots are, today, jobless in Nigeria, and the situation is not getting any better.
The main issue is that over 70m of Nigeria’s workforce is unemployed or underemployed. With massive turnout of young university leavers, available job markets cannot annually absorb over a million young and active youths who have obtained the basic university degrees necessary to get employed. The statistics of unemployment is staggering, and it’s obvious federal government is incapable of alleviating this dangerous situation. Nothing is more dangerous than unemployed, educated youths. They can easily become restless.
The issue of unemployed pilots is associated with four fundamental dilemmas: (1) the annual turnout of young people who obtain basic flying skills/ certificates (commercial pilot license) is greater than the available job opportunities (supply exceeds demand); (2) all the airlines in Nigeria are financially unstable, therefore, to employ and re- train a green, fresh pilot out of flying school for aircraft type –rating amounts to financial suicide; (3) the majority of the private jets in the country are financed from abroad, therefore, as collateral to the lessor, the aircraft must remain registered in the financing institution’s country (usually, country of registry); and (4) cost of type-conversion course is in excess of US$30,000 per pilot; it’s cheaper and easier to employ an already rated pilot.
While the forgoing may sound strange to a non- aircraft operator, it is the vicious job cycle in our aviation sector.
For example, when the federal government, under President Umaru Yar’Adua, succeeded in offering amnesty to the Niger-Delta militants, over 100 young militants were sponsored to South Africa for professional pilot training. Although this sponsorship gesture is commendable, the dark side is that no one thought that these young men and women would become unemployed. They are back from training, and there are no jobs for them.
On the other hand, the Nigerian College of Aviation technology (NCAT), Zaria, has graduated nearly 60 young pilots in the past three years. The flying school in Ilorin has also churned out a few fresh pilots. Their training expenses came out of private pockets of their parents. This is what makes it very painful.
The big question is how to proffer solutions to this lingering problem. The members of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), who want to recommend a broad-based employment mandate to all aircraft owners to employ Nigerians first, should understand that the recommendation can never be acceptable to private aircraft owners, charter operators, or schedule commercial airlines. Those who finance their aircraft from abroad, especially from Europe, can only employ Nigerians with European licenses or validations. It’s that simple.
Since the majority of airlines in Nigeria are privately financed, government has no authority to compel them to employ Nigerians. The operators must see the advantage of using Nigerians: vis-à-vis cost effectiveness, competence, and attitude to work. No airline in Nigeria, today, would prefer to import expensive foreigners to work for the company if it is cost effective to employ Nigerians. There is no business as cut- throat as airline business; every penny matters.
Since government has imposed unbearable levies on foreign registered aircraft operating in Nigeria, (inflated landing and navigational charges), those with foreign registered aircrafts bear more costs of operating within the country. These costs surely could hinder available resources to train inexperienced pilots.
One plausible solution to this unending structural unemployment is to compel those airlines that have benefited from the bailout funds to type-rate three to four pilots on the most common fleet of airplanes operating in the country. In this case, type rating on the B737 classics and next generation aircraft could make fresh, young pilots marketable.
Another persistent crisis in the industry is that very few Nigerian pilots train in Europe. The reasons are: it’s more expensive; and secondly, harder to obtain European pilots certification.
One major solution is to establish a National carrier, at least, as a social service, to create jobs for the young and upcoming pilots, and to rehabilitate the old, experienced pilots who have been out of jobs because of professional handicap on modern airplanes. There is no guarantee that a new national carrier will be profitable. Not at all. But it would be an avenue to train and provide jobs for Nigerians.
If the federal government is sincere about creating jobs for airline pilots, the existing half-dead airlines must be supported, in any way possible, to keep breathing, or nothing will ease off this cancer, not even a decree can change the status quo.