HR May 2015

The draw of working overseas

According to a new poll of 2,553 job seekers in Japan conducted by recruiting firm Hays, 88% of respondents would consider working overseas.

Of the five countries in Asia where the poll was conducted—Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and Japan—Japan had the lowest result. This suggests that, while a significant proportion of the country’s workforce would head overseas, its employees are less mobile globally than others in Asia.

In the poll, 65% of job seekers in Japan said they would leave Japan for better job opportunities and for career development or exposure, while 23% would leave for lifestyle factors (the highest figure among the five countries polled). Just 12% would not consider leaving Japan to work overseas.

Of the five countries surveyed, Singapore has the most globally mobile workforce, with 97% of jobseekers saying they would consider leaving Singapore to work overseas. Of these, 85% gave as their reason better job opportunities and career development or exposure, while 12% would leave for lifestyle factors.

China had the second-most globally mobile workforce, with 96% of job seekers willing to consider leaving China to work overseas (85% for better job opportunities and career development or exposure; 11% for lifestyle factors).

In Hong Kong, 94% of respondents would work overseas, just ahead of Malaysia’s rate of 93%. Meanwhile, 82% of the Hong Kong respondents and 84% of those in Malaysia would work abroad to achieve better job opportunities and for career development or exposure, while 12% of the Hong Kong and 9% of the Malaysian respondents would work abroad for lifestyle factors.

The opportunity to gain highly valued international experience is the number one factor driving local talent overseas. However, the results show that Japanese are not as keen to move overseas as professionals are in the other Asian countries surveyed.

In our experience, one of the key reasons for this quality of being relatively conservative is the lack of language skills. Judging from average TOEFL scores, for English language proficiency Japan ranks near the bottom among the countries polled. This shows that language education and the development of a bilingual workforce in Japan is important if the country wants to develop a global talent pool.

Interestingly, the survey also shows that a relatively higher percentage of Japanese want to move overseas for lifestyle factors compared with respondents from other Asian countries.

One of the key reasons for this is that Japanese today have developed a strong desire to have a stimulating, stable life. They are not as focused on pursing roles offering higher salaries, due to Japan’s long recession and relatively recent natural disasters, including the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

Benefits of working abroad

Japanese professionals who work abroad typically gain additional sought-after skills that can give them an edge when they return to the local jobs market. The most prized of these is cross-cultural communication skills.

In fact, returning Japanese are aware that home-grown and multinational employers in Japan value their new, often more open, way of thinking as well as their business experience, mixed with local knowledge and cultural awareness.

The demand for bilingual candidates with fluency in English can be seen in many different sectors of the economy. For example, in the legal profession, there is an increasing need for employees with bilingual capabilities, although there is a scarcity of candidates with these skills.

Many companies in the life sciences sector require a high English TOEIC score of over 850, so many junior candidates are studying English to improve their job prospects and chances of promotion.

In addition, as investment in property continues to grow and new construction projects commence for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, there is very high demand for bilingual property project managers.

IT candidates who have good communications skills in Japanese and English, as well as a strong understanding of technologies and the business overall, will be in high demand in the future. Hays is also finding more employers expecting candidates to have English language skills in manufacturing and operations.

Therefore, time spent working overseas can be beneficial to a candidate’s career for the advanced communication skills it helps to further develop, as well as for the cross-cultural understanding and broader business experience that can be gained.

Advice for employers

When recruiting returning Japanese, the greatest challenge faced by employers is avoiding overpaying them, while making sure the offer is enough to secure them. Employers who are recruiting such global talent should first make sure they pay appropriately for skills. While salary is a key driver, the overall offering and benefits package should be considered.

Then, find your leverage and recruit intelligently. What attracts a candidate to your organisation might not be purely financial gain. Family ties and career advancement opportunities may be a factor for the candidate, so talk to your recruiter to gain a deeper insight into what motivates an applicant. With this knowledge, you can tailor your offer appropriately.

Finally, employers should also work to hold on to the professionals they already have. Returning Japanese are likely to believe they will have a faster career path. This highlights the importance of putting a solid and individualised retention plan in place, which includes open and honest discussions with returnees about their career development expectations.