14 years a trainee: Who will rescue young Nigerian bank workers?

By, Tope Fasua

A few weeks back, I had cause to quarrel (from afar by the way) with Mr Atedo Peterside, the erudite banker, when he said something to the effect that because Nigeria had ‘spoilt’ (my word), Nigerian youths could no longer aspire like he did. He said he got a banking license at the age of 33. The likes of Tayo Aderinokun, Fola Adeola, Jim Ovia, and so many more also got their own banking licenses around the same time, when President Babangida opened up the system for such investments. I quarrelled because I felt the statement was intended to get young people angry, for there are still opportunities aplenty even in Nigeria. After all, more than a decade after Mr Peterside established the famous IBTC Merchant Bank, which set standards in those days, people like Mr Tony Elumelu, Herbert Wigwe, Aig Imoukhede came on stream. Today, the in-thing may not be all about acquiring banking licenses – after all a successful musician, Davido, may be as rich as many bank MDs, but without the hassle of having to fear the next Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) or Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC) audit. There are also many young Nigerians in the fintech space. The capitalisation of some fintechs surpass those of many banks today. And some of the promoters are below 30 years. So, what’s the point? Times are changing, values are changing. Tech is turning everything on their heads. Maybe people value being a techie, musician or comedian or even skit-maker today, more than they value being a prim and proper banker.

This thought came back to me as I discussed in a car heading to Eket, with my new friend, Captain Adu, some weeks back. We were talking about Governor Diete Spiff, Sir Melford Okilo, and other former governors of the old Rivers State. We extended the discussion to Nigeria’s military era and the superstars of that time. Many became state governors at below the age of 30. I imagined where I was when I was 24 years and 9 months old. At that age, tall, lanky Alfred Diete-Spiff was governor of River State already – Mr Peterside’s state, no doubt. Today, Sir Spiff is the Amayanabo of Twon Brass, enjoying original kaikai fresh from the creeks at age 81 and still kicking fine. If someone had riled the young Mr Peterside too, he may have derailed from finding his destiny, because in an era past, young men between 24 and 28 years were controlling states. Even General Gowon was 31 years as head of state, and Generals Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Murtala Muhammad were in their early 30s when they led the nation.

In my own time in the same banking industry, it had gotten a little harder – but it was an incredibly opportune period as well. As a forever grateful heart, I didn’t even see the scarcity, or the down side. What I saw was that I found a job in a bank in which I knew nobody. I had no big referral from some godfather. And once I got in, I didn’t look back, putting my all into my work entirely. And in those days, most of us got promoted every 18 months. In the era before ours (those that joined right off the bat as IBB deregulated and liberalised the sector – they got their promotions yearly. Whereas it took some of those guys less that 10 years to make it to the executive suite, it took my set a little bit longer – say 13 or 15 years. Yet, it was a very interesting and rewarding era.

Blessings shouldn’t reduce down the generations. They should expand instead. But human beings create the façade of scarcity and want. Indeed, the concept of scarcity has been questioned even in the field of Economics – as central as scarcity is to this body of knowledge. Scholars have pointed out that, perhaps, indeed resources may not be as scarce as assumed by the definition of Economics. Scarcity may be a mirage. In the sphere of the subject matter of this writeup (growth opportunities in the banking sector), opportunities have expanded with the effluxion of time, as technology opened up the space, and globalisation took hold some more. The Nigerian economy has even grown (from $4 billion at independence in 1960, to about $450 billion today – more than a hundred fold), so why should we be focused on the scarcity of opportunity than the abundance of it? Economies all over the world have changed in remarkable ways. With some tech knowledge, a young person can write some codes that help to create a neobank today, or to bring a lot more efficiency to the payment service sub-sector, such that banks can only look on as some of their businesses are taken.

But there is a need to look inside our banks at the fates of the average young employee today. And that is the essence of this article. It looks like the average young Nigerian in that sector has been left and totally forgotten in a time warp. I think that is unfair, and hurtful, not only to these youths but to society and the economy at large. Not only has technology obliterated many spaces, our banks have also taken deliberate efforts to downsize and shrink their expenses on human capital. Automated Teller Machines have taken over thousands of jobs that could have been the basis of the steady career growth of many young Nigerians, and today we all perform our banking transactions on apps – even paying the banks to do transfers that they would have had to get young staff to do just a decade ago. Bank profitability has soared in Nigeria, and many balance sheets have simply exploded. This year, many of our top-tier banks are declaring record profits, sometimes nudging the trillions. Yes, trillions of naira. As observed by Thomas Picketty, the reward for labour has plateaued over the last 200 years – or even declined in real terms. Instead, the reward for capital has skyrocketed, with those who own capital substituting even more labour with capital, by acquiring sophisticated machines and the latest technologies – which are admittedly far more efficient than humans. This phenomenon bears out strongly in Nigeria’s banking sector. The question then is: what do we do eventually with our human resources?

One would have thought therefore that the remaining staff in the banks would be part of this new found prosperity. But that is not the case. Roughly 70 per cent of the young staff members we see in our banks today are contract staff. They are happy to find a job but are being shown the brutality of capitalism. They go in with the hope of eventually becoming real staff and growing careers, but most, if not all, are held off at arms length by these banks until they lose hope. Some resort to fraud in the banks, out of hopelessness. I recall that the Central Bank of Nigeria had warned banks in the past not to keep too many staff as contractors and to be wary of the correlation between having too many contract staff, and incidences of fraud. Perhaps it goes without saying that when staff are made to feel like outsiders and cannot see themselves as part and parcel of a bank, they tend to get desperate.

I had to write this after meeting a bunch of bank staff members, who though feeling lucky that they are not outsourced contract staff (a fate deemed much worse), have been trainees for 10 to 14 years! Imagine that someone has seen no progress on a job for 14 years, not because s/he is not hardworking or smart, but because the bank group MDs and Chairmen just could no longer be bothered that they exist, or they are not connected. Focus has shifted. Structures have grown so large that Group MDs no longer know who the small folks are. But why can there not be some career plan for these staff, after all staff numbers have relatively shrunk from what it used to be when there were no apps and ATMs everywhere? Must it be a scorched earth approach – to max out until only the super-rich can revel in byzantine pleasures? Is someone not seeing the precariousness of what has emerged?

Not even in the much-vilified public sector can this happen. I met someone who has worked in banking for 20 years and considers himself extremely lucky for being an Assistant Manager. He was lucky to have started his career in another era when he could get promoted every three years. Now, there is none. Yet, his colleague in the core civil service would have climbed from GL8 to probably GL12 in that same time period. The public service has a strict rule that weeds off people at the top and allows people progress from below. They may complain to high heavens about their salaries and whatnot, but it’s better to make some progress than be stuck in one spot, no matter the amount of salary one is paid. In no time, someone who has spent 25 years in public service will rise to become Assistant Director or even Director, while the young banker would have flunked out, perhaps at best as a bank officer with little self-esteem to start something new. Someone suggested that people should learn to leave rather than get stuck. Is there no value anymore to loyalty? And are we all equally strong to launch out into the cold and try something new?

This situation brings back the question of the value of unionism? Whereas unions are now regarded as anachronistic creations that slow down growth and innovation, in places like Germany, they have worked to make companies stronger. In Germany, staff members are mandated to be nominated as part of the board of large corporations, where they can fight for the rights of workers. This allows workers to really feel like part of the company. In Nigeria, even the unions are hardly democratic themselves. There are career unionists who sit in position as President or Secretary for 30 years. Many unionists here are billionaires. But there is still value in unionism because where workers have no voice, they tend to become slaves. And slaves act irrationally. It is therefore in the interest of sustainable existence for companies to ensure they give hope, especially to their young workers. And for our society too, this is important so that we stop producing a steady torrent of disengaged, angry youths, who readily join any attempt to pull the whole structure down.

I encourage the great Mr Cardoso to waste no time in looking at this perennial problem, which is slam bang within the purview of banking supervision. There was a time when the CBN wanted to engage the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria (CIBN) to somehow certify all staff in banking, so that proper careers will be assured for most. I believe there are also rules around contract staffing, but banks have been known to use these young staff for eight years on the same puny salaries, sack them all and recruit new ones. For an industry with the highest profitability in the land, this is hardly acceptable. CBN must please bring new focus to this issue. Mr Cardoso, who was our director, Treasury, while I worked at Citizens Bank decades ago, understands these issues and is a very compassionate man under whom young bankers will rediscover their pride of place.

For me, the concern is more about the whole economy. Our young folks cannot constantly be japa-ing, planning side deals when they should be working loyally, diverting businesses obtained for their current place of work, engaging in grand corruption, thinking about fraud, and getting disoriented and disengaged from their society and economy in their prime. We must stop haemorrhaging talent constantly to foreign lands where they get cheapened and often abused. We must also encourage those who have left to please return. We must open the eyes of our young ones to the EXPANDING opportunities that come with time and innovation, and not constrict their horizon by drilling into them that it’s a winner-takes-all world. Lastly, this is part of the proper corporate governance matters that will underpin further contribution to Nigeria’s attainment of the $1 trillion GDP by 2031 as promised by Mr President. If banks are to now raise much more in capital, there must be a discontinuation to classism and the neglect of the youth, and our best talents must be optimised.

The situation is indeed sad and bad. But I know the industry is populated by reasonable people and can self-correct with a little encouragement.

‘Tope Fasua, an economist, author, blogger, and entrepreneur, can be reached through topsyfash@yahoo.com.