Rethinking National Service placement system amid COVID-19

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The overall impact of National Service Scheme (NSS) on the economy of Ghana can never be over-emphasized. The truth of the matter is that many young graduates have in one way or the other served the country and that cannot be taken for granted. In my final year in the University of Ghana, as a Commonwealth Hall resident, specifically room A-21, I heard Standard Chartered Bank (SCB) had come to campus (Nkrumah Block) to recruit service personnel for the 2008/2009 season. I didn’t hesitate to take advantage of this opportunity, to cut a long story short, it was the turning point in my career. I have been working for the bank for the last 12 years and the training as well as opportunities have been and continue to be endless. I particularly remain grateful to the then Human Resource Management team at the time, especially to Akosua Asaa Yelbet currently with Stanbic Bank Ghana Limited and Foster Opare who is still with SCB.

 

Over the years, the placement approach for National Service Persons (NSPs) has gone through several changes, with periods when getting institutions to offer service opportunities have become extremely difficult. Gone are the days when companies and institutions placed requests for NSPs or when individuals opted for specific companies they could serve. Today, the novel Corona Virus (COVID 19) pandemic has made the situation more daunting than before. A lot of firms are shutting down, cutting down cost, downsizing and even going virtual on careers. Amid all these, is there not a cause to rethink the entire National Service placement strategy for unborn generations?

 

Historically, the National Service programme has been a one-year mandatory employment opportunity for all Ghana tertiary graduates who are citizens and between the ages of 18yrs and 40yrs at the time of deployment. The Scheme which started in 1973 and now operates under the Act 426 (of 1980) was set up to provide service to all sectors of the economy to ensure growth and nation building. From an alternate perspective, national service is seen as a National Youth Service program that empowers young people to play an active role in national development and develop a sense of duty to the nation. Tertiary graduates are of particular importance because they represent the highest skilled individuals in the labour market, with the potential to make significant contributions to economic growth in developing Ghana. A 5-year trend analysis of the data at the secretariat reveals that although 2017 saw numbers around 90,000, the 2020 intake and deployment has hit over 100,000. This raises concern over the increasing numbers and our preparedness as a country to absorb the increasing numbers as per data sourced from the NSS website.

Source: National Service Secretariat

The diagram below shows the unemployment rate (as percentage of Labour force) in Ghana from 2015 to 2019. According to the diagram, 2015 recorded the highest unemployment rate (6.81%) while 2017 recorded the lowest unemployment rate (4.22%). Ghana’s unemployment rate for 2018 was 4.16%, a 0.07% decline from 2017 and a decline of 1.29% form 2016. The rise in unemployment in 2019 could potentially be attributed to the financial sector clean-up and graduate unemployment. According to iWatch Africa, the number of direct job loses as a result of the financial sector clean-up by the Bank of Ghana stands at over 6000 since 2017/2018.

In March 2020, COVID-19 reared its dreadful head in Ghana and completely changed the landscape as we know it.  It is without doubt that Ghanaians have had their fair share of being reminded that we are not in normal times, but this is the sad truth. However, a section of Ghanaians are still asking a number of relevant questions concerning this year’s national service placements due to the current state we find ourselves. One may ask “Should we still have the mandatory 1-year National Service by graduates in 2020? Is it still important in its current form?”

 

Source: World Bank

There is a general prevailing perception that tertiary graduates are not acquiring the appropriate skills to meet the requirements of the job market and the needs of the economy, and this is in turn limiting productive capabilities firms. Despite this indication of a labour market mismatch, there has not been any attempt to identify potential strategies to better align graduate skills with employment requirements and opportunities in Ghana. Some Ghanaians are also of the view that the compulsory one-year national service is not so adequate to train graduates as job placements may not be relevant to their career paths. They therefore lack the experience and find it difficult finding jobs. In some situations, graduates are even posted to teach subjects they didn’t study while trained teachers remain unemployed in the country. The labour market has indeed become flooded with post-national service unemployed graduates and this number continues to increase yearly.

According to Trading Economics global macro models and analysts’ expectation, the unemployment rate in Ghana is expected to reach 7.30% by the end of 2020 due to the negative impact COVID-19 on the various sectors of the economy. Taking into consideration the economic impact of COVID-19 and the unemployment figures, it can be stated that employment opportunities in the formal sector post COVID-19 will be scarce, compelling most people to enter informal sector for their livelihood.  A lot has already been said and to re-echo, there is a need to re-structure our educational syllabus to be entrepreneur base as a country.

Research have shown that, one of the characteristics of the coronavirus is that it thrives on human interaction. As companies continue to abide by the protocols drawn by the World Health Organization and the Ghana Health Service (GHS), human interaction reduces stifling the virus and impeding its growth. It is against this backdrop that organizations are using creative ways of reducing the number of employees working in the office. Remote work has become very popular since the pandemic started and indeed since March 2020, I have not stepped in my office.  One option of doing this is putting workforce into two teams i.e. Team A and Team B. So, for example all those in Team A will work in the office this week while all those in Team B work from home. Then next week they will swap.  If this approach is adopted, employers will be reluctant to accept this year’s national service personnel since it’s going to increase their cost of operation while adding nothing to the company’s profitability because companies are already faced with the COVID-19 challenge.

Following the virtual conference organized by the Africa Centre for Energy Policy (ACEP) to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on Africa’s oil and gas sector, some of the industry players as well as some mining firms have decided to suspend employing the services of national service personnel this year in Ghana, while others have deferred their operations to the second and third quarters of 2021. There are a lot of companies out there who have not made public their intentions not to absorb service personnel, however, the signals are very clear considering the fact that they need to cut cost amid this pandemic.

The educational sector has been perceived to be the biggest recipient of service persons however, with schools shutting down temporarily, the question is, what happens to all these persons who hitherto would have been posted to the educational facilities. In the mid-year budget review and presentation, Hon. Ken Ofori Attah mentioned that government failed to meet its half year revenue targets. Overall fiscal deficit at half year stood at Ghs24.35bn representing 6.3% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) verse period target of 3.1% of GDP. Expectations are that fiscal deficit will end at 11.4% of GDP by year end 2020. This invariably will impact a number of sectors. Will government intervene and give tax waivers/exemptions to companies who may increase their intake for service persons?

With the mandate of instilling the idea of social welfare in graduates, and equipping them to provide service to society without bias, the NSS programme provides a great opportunity for numerous problems in our society to be solved if NSS personnel are deployed specifically to solve these problems. The NSS programme is also aimed at instilling volunteerism in graduates so they can contribute their quota to help the needy and enhance their standard of living. Every year there should be a theme for NSS deployment. It should seek to achieve a particular agenda through the deployment and graduates should be assigned on this basis. This should go a long way to help the graduates develop problem solving skills so they can remain relevant to society and industry as a whole. Some of the areas could be sanitation, pollution of water bodies, education on social vices etc.

The NSS scheme could also be merged with some state interventions like NABCO in periods like the COVID-19 pandemic where there are limited spaces to absorb the growing number. They can be placed under Ministry of Education, Health, Agriculture, Finance etc. These personnel could be given research topics that bother on areas of importance to National Development.

For instance, Youth in Agriculture can be revamped through NSS by assigning students to some agricultural firms, and different firms in the agriculture value chain so they can gain hands on experience in solving societal problems. This comes in handy for a government policy such as Planting for Food and Jobs. Such social interventions programmes can be expanded so graduates can go into research and work with farmers to improve food security in their one-year compulsory service to the state.

Government could also consider incentivizing the private sector to encourage them accept or request for NSS Personnel in times like this when it is not too attractive to enroll them. These include a reduction in how much tax they pay, to reduction in their bills at the port for those that heavily depend on importation for their operations. But there should be a minimum threshold for any company seeking to recruit NSS personnel.

At this point in time, we possibly need to have objective non-political discussions on the cost, value and relevance of the current national service scheme for graduates, and whether it should be redesigned or modelled. Furthermore, placement of service personnel should be dialogued with the service personnel and user agencies, taking into consideration the developmental needs of the nation. Additionally, absorbing the allowance of service personnel posted to private institutions by the government in this pandemic era cannot be underrated. This will increase the willingness by private firms to accept more service personnel.

To my service personnel, have the ambition of becoming a game changer at your place of posting, go the extra mile and be a warrior. I demonstrated resilience, tenacity, dedication and commitment to the extent that I was among the few persons who were maintained after the service was over in August. It is possible with you too.

Thanks for reading!

 

Credit: World Bank, National Service Secretariat, Alaina Opuni-Frimpong, Sophia Kafui Teye, Edmund Obeng

Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal views and doesn’t represent that of the media house or institution the writer works.

About the Writer

Carl is a Finance and Telecom enthusiast, managing Banks and Non-Bank Financial Institutions, local and global Custodians, Trustees, Pension and Asset Managers, Insurance and Fintech relationships with an international Bank in Ghana. Contact:  [email protected], Cell: +233-200301110

2 COMMENTS

  1. Sir, am Antwi Ransford and I just completed winneba -mampong campus. Please, I just want to know whether there will be NSS postings this year

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