Industry—HR April 2016

Fresh ideas on hiring

Chances for non-linear candidates

  • Gap years uncommon, not understood in Japan
  • Few Japanese staff eager to work abroad
  • Employers should carefully assess non-linear candidates

In our increasingly globalised business environment, we are observing a growing tension between historical attitudes to education and employment in Japan, and the need to keep in step with international trends.

The Japanese work environment traditionally has been shaped by two factors: the recruitment of new graduates and lifetime employment. The path from school to university to employment—mainly as a salaried employee—has been rather rigid. Young workers have been expected to secure employment with the most prestigious firm possible, and to continue working there for life.

Employees who fail to follow this path generally become furita (workers in part-time, low-income and low-skilled roles, often due to their inability or reluctance to become salaried workers).

Historically, Japanese employers—and the work environment in general—have not looked favourably upon this group, whose members often struggle to catch up with their peers to enter the mainstream workforce. However, the rapidly changing nature of the global employment market and the shortage of talent in Japan are putting pressure on organisations to reconsider their attitudes to hiring.

A slow shift

Students in many countries enjoy a gap year, when they take some time off—after high school or university—to travel and broaden their horizons before taking the next step, either in their education or a career.

While in many countries this is now often viewed favourably, as a valuable opportunity for young people, that is not the case in Japan; a gap year is almost unheard of, and largely not understood. Further, as young people have wanted to secure employment with a reputable Japanese firm, there has been little merit for them in seeking ways to gain experience overseas, either by studying abroad or through secondment.

However, we are now seeing a slow shift in perception, as a result of an increasingly globalised business culture. Even the government has taken steps to encourage a generation of global leaders. English lessons are compulsory from fifth grade, while an increasing number of universities are having their students study abroad as part of their degree requirements.

Yet, globalisation efforts are arguably not yet having a major impact on the decisions of employees. According to research conducted by the Sanno Institute of Management in 2015, over 60% of new graduates have no desire to work abroad.

Compare this with many South East Asian countries, where there is a great hunger among employees for opportunities to gain experience abroad. They believe it increases their candidate value in this globalised market. According to the 2015 Michael Page South East Asia Salary & Employment Outlook, 25% of organisations surveyed provided global career opportunities to help attract and retain talent.

Consistency, stability valued

As Japanese firms look outward, seeking to compete on the global stage, they need workers who are able to operate globally, thus increasing demand for people with these skill sets. This will potentially create openings for workers, who have not followed a traditional employment path, to find their way into the mainstream workforce as firms compete for talent that is in short supply.

Businesses will find themselves better able to secure the specific skill sets they need by being more flexible in their approach to hiring, and open to the possibility that skills may be gained through such non-traditional means as freelance or contract work, volunteer experience and entrepreneurship.

Firms will need to educate themselves on how to evaluate candidates with what Japan considers a non-traditional background, and ensure that such staff do not face disadvantages or discrimination when they are brought into an organisation alongside colleagues who have followed a more linear path.

Similarly, candidates with a non-traditional background need to make very clear to any prospective employers how their experience corresponds with employer expectations. They should be prepared for their job search to take a bit longer than that of other candidates.

Working with a recruitment firm can prove enormously helpful. Specialist staff can advise candidates on how best to present their job history and experience in a positive light, and help match them with employers who are more open to candidates who have taken an unconventional career path.