Graduate job hunt still tough despite economic upturn

Armed with notebooks and folders Rika Nogochi, a third-year liberal arts student, is attending job seminars in Tokyo. “It's not too early to begin this gruelling search for a good job despite the fact that I graduate next April,” she said as she marched through company booths listening to lectures and picking up brochures at a recent job fair.

New recruits start work on 1 April, the start of the Japanese fiscal calendar.

Nogochi (20) is competing with the estimated more than 550,000 new four-year university graduates this year, the highest number recorded in Japan.

The search, according to labour experts, is becoming more positive following ‘Abenomics’ – government-led growth stimulation policies named after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – which has led to a more dynamic business climate.

Last December, Japan’s Labour Ministry predicted an employment rate for new graduates of 93.8% this year, given that most local and multinational companies have resumed hiring new employees.

The figure represents a leap from a decade ago, when graduate employment, at 91%, reflected the long economic recession with sluggish 2% gross domestic product growth.

Employment dynamics

But the happier new forecasts have not assuaged Nogochi`s anxiety about bagging a good job.

The graduate, who speaks good English and wants to work in a high-profile international company, says she is “acutely aware of the new challenges” she faces in an emerging tough market compared to the staid period of plentiful work of her parents’ generation.

Chika Goda, an expert at Recruit Career – Japan’s leading recruiting company – said: “The number of university graduates is increasing annually, which is one reason why the competition is stiff in the best established companies.”

Goda pointed out that the vast majority of four-year graduates want full-time and financially lucrative jobs in large companies that have become increasingly picky in their selection.

“The irony is that university graduates seek jobs in companies that now resort to hiring those who can only perfectly match their requirements. With more university graduates competing for the limited number of exclusive openings, the job market is turning into a desperate search for new recruits,” she said.

Koichi Morita, career counsellor at Sophia University, one of Japan’s leading private higher education institutions, agreed that the woes faced by graduates was not related to the lack of jobs but rather the narrowness of their goals.

“They have dreams for their future, which is not a bad thing. But the stark reality is that not everybody can have the dream job. Their chances will grow if they would only expand their horizons and send applications to companies that include small- and medium-sized companies,” he said.

Suicide among the young on the rise

According to official statistics, Japanese employment is far from rosy.

The Labour Ministry is currently cracking down on new entities called ‘black companies’ that are accused of abusive labour conditions – for example in the information technology sector – that hire large numbers of graduates but are accused of expecting employees to work long hours with less overtime pay.

Also, Japan is hiring more non-regular workers – their numbers had risen to 18 million by 2012 from 14 million a decade before – while statistics for regular hires have dipped from 34.8 million to 33 million during the same period.

The result is alarmingly high rates recorded among students who contemplate suicide – one in five, according to Lifelink, a non-profit group dealing with the issue.

New survey responses collected among almost 250 university and vocational school graduates indicated a high level of distrust of Japanese firms and society.

According to the Lifelink poll, while the number of suicides in Japan has shown a downward trend in the last 15 years, the number among young people in their 20s has risen, with 3,000 suicides in 2012 – around 9% of total suicides.

Failures in job hunting accounted for 149 suicides among people in their 20s last year, two-and-a-half times the rate in 2007.

“An overwhelming number of young people want full-time jobs and when they cannot achieve this goal they feel left-behind and feel useless,” said Lifelink founder Yasuyuki Shimizu.

He pointed out that lack of hope illustrates how Japanese education does not help students to think outside the box, underscoring a society that places priority on sameness.

“Education overall, even in universities, ignores the goal of nurturing motivation in students to think for themselves. The lack of a critical mind is why hardworking students blame themselves – and even want to kill themselves.

“When they cannot acquire a job they feel they have no place in society,” he said.

Experts warned that the obsession with stable jobs had turned higher education into a path for employment rather than a respect for learning.

Takejiro Sueyoshi, a television critic and author, said: “High school graduates, facing pressure from their parents, chose universities or professors who have gained a reputation of sending their students to established companies.

“This trend is contrary to the core vision of higher education that must create an eagerness to learn among young people.”