JAPAN: Grim job prospects lead to skills rethink

Employment rates for Japanese university students have declined for the third consecutive year - a jolting experience for what was once a largely mollycoddled elite group in the country and a trend that some experts believe could be long term. Changing needs in the market also mean that graduates must adapt their job expectations, mindset and skills.

Japan's Health, Welfare and Labour Ministry reported on Tuesday that only around two-thirds (68.8%) of this year's prospective graduates had found jobs as of 1 December, down 4.3% on a year earlier - and the lowest recorded since 1996.

The common practice is for university students to snare jobs before final graduation in April, the start of the new fiscal year in Japan.

In 2009 the graduate employment rate was a woeful 62%. Such figures might seem high for graduate employment in many countries, but are virtually unheard of in Japan, which is used to a near 100% employment rate for graduates.

The latest figures are based on a ministry survey of 62 universities providing four-year degrees and 20 junior colleges offering two-year courses. Both types of institution have been the traditional hunting ground for Japanese companies seeking educated young people they can groom to be loyal lifelong employees.

Mami Suzuki, 22, who decided last September to enrol in a graduate course after a disappointing job search following her first degree, said: "I visited at least 60 companies but none of them offered me a secure and exciting position. I just gave up."

She is not unusual. But more worryingly, labour experts predict the poor take-up of final year students is here to stay. Despite statistics that show 90% of students find some kind of employment after they graduate, the gloomy mid-term outlook means that job searches are becoming more excruciating for students.

To some extent this mirrors the wider labour market. The Japanese economy grew by only 2% last year and is forecast to grow just 1.8% in 2011. Unemployment has risen to almost 6% nationally.

But while the economic recession is the key reason behind the job crunch, the picture is more complex for young people now graduating, analysts said.

Normally highly sought-after, job offers to science and engineering students fell by the largest margin ever, according to the labour ministry, down 7.3% to just seven in 10 students. And some experts point out that this is not just temporary but due to many of Japan's manufacturing industries moving to lower-cost countries.

Fuji Heavy Industries President Ikuo Mori told Japanese media: "There's a tendency for young employees to shy [away] from working overseas."

According to a survey by the Sanno Institute of Management, almost half of Japanese university graduates in the 2010 academic year said they did not want to work overseas, up 20% from a similar survey in 2001.

A number of Japanese companies with manufacturing activities in China have now begun to recruit some of their graduate intake directly from top universities in China, with knock-on effects for Japanese graduates.

"It is true that companies are not hiring [Japanese graduates] as much as they did before. But what we see now is a definite mismatch between job seekers and positions offered by companies," said Keiichi Nerei, manager at Digital Hollywood, a leading university specialising in digital design technology.

Graduates of the college are employed in the fast-growing computer games and web design sector. But as Nerei pointed out, the trend is for companies to hire young people who not only have computer and design skills but are also better versed in other areas such as marketing and communication.

"Japanese students must change to meet the new demands for versatility. They must be prepared to find employment not only because they specialised in one field," he said.

In response to the changing graduate market Recruit Company, a leading employment information agency, launched the Dream Match last September to help students think realistically about their goals, polish their ability to think outside the box, and prepare to be multi-skilled.

According to a Recruit spokesperson, Japanese companies are developing strategies for globalisation requiring graduates who are proficient in foreign languages, are internationally savvy and are able to communicate effectively.

"With manufacturing not the main business, there is now less need for youth who follow what they are trained to do. The preference is for students who can contribute something special to the company business," she said.

Toyota Motor Corp, Japan's leading automaker, has revived a programme sending young employees as 'recruiters' to their alma maters, to meet students and brief them about the reality of the competitive auto industry.

The company has explained this would teach student applicants they should not choose jobs just because they offer security, as was the norm in the past.

The government is also putting new measures in place to help students find employment.

One such scheme is the extension of monthly financial allowances of 100,000 yen (US$1,220) to companies taking on unemployed university graduates for temporary work for a period of three months, which could help foster permanent recruitment. Some 150,000 young people are currently registered under this scheme.

Job support offices catering specifically to students' needs have also been established across the island, to help ease the graduate joblessness problem.

The Japanese experience of increasing graduate unemployment is an indication of continued relevance of entrepreneurship education and practice. Instead of an endless search for white collar jobs, Japanese graduates should focus on self employment. The fact that the Japanese governnment encourages industries to employ graduates shows the state interest in employment generation in Japan. The Japanese model of financial inducement to promote graduate employment should be replicated in Nigeria through the National Directorate of Employment (NDE).

Dr Akeem Ayofe Akinwale