From where I sit - 'Right attitude' to the workplace

June 2, 2011

This year, the graduate job market in Japan is the worst on record. That's the nature of records, of course: they keep being broken. But since the records only began in 1994, it's not that unusual for them to be shattered, especially since the economic bursting-bubble crisis hit Japan before that year. Indeed, it was the scarcity of graduate employment in the early 1990s that persuaded the government to record the figures in the first place.

Historically, firms recruited graduates in Japan primarily based upon the reputation of their almae matres, more or less ignoring the grades they achieved. Top employers would recruit only from the top institutions, such as the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University and the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

Complaints about this practice in the years since the bubble burst, combined with international ideas filtering into the management of Japanese firms, have led to a shift away from such practices. Although, as with other countries, graduates of the top institutions are less likely to have problems finding work than those from less well-regarded institutions, these days the human resources people say that they are looking for the "right attitude" in post-university applicants.

This "right attitude" seems to boil down to the basics of applying for a job: having a well-written CV without spelling mistakes; possessing the ability to speak coherently at interviews (and to smile at the interviewers occasionally); and knowing something about the firm one is applying to, such as what it does and what a job with it might entail in general terms.

Coming from the UK, where graduate recruitment statistics are pored over, and as a former careers management tutor in my department, I find the lack of careers advice and preparation at Japanese universities very odd. Only now are many of them recruiting significant numbers of careers advisers and tutors to help their students prepare to move on from the world of study into the world of work. In addition, universities are also beginning to engage more with employers on issues such as the recruitment cycle.

Some private firms are looking to cash in on the ill-preparedness of students, with Tokyo recruitment firms offering 12-lesson courses for 130,000 yen (about £1,000) or more. Parents concerned about their offspring's lack of preparation are often the ones funding these courses - a wise investment perhaps, since most students who fail to gain graduate positions will return to the family home and expect to be supported by their parents for indefinite periods.

While Japanese universities do have careers services, their staff can be out of touch with the modern world. Mitsuko Uenishi, an associate professor at Hosei University, recently told The Daily Yomiuri newspaper: "The skills to succeed in interviews or better describe why someone wants to enter a company are only necessary in job hunting. They have nothing to do with abilities that matter after working."

In this context, it's not surprising that Sony recently announced that it would increase the recruitment of foreigners to its graduate scheme to 30 per cent of the total number in 2013.

While the UK grapples with concerns about a growing instrumentalist attitude to higher education, in Japan both universities and undergraduates need to put more effort into preparing students for the transition from education to employment.

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