Vol.34-No.05 May 1,1995
School of Business Administration
In Japan, there is a myriad of small to medium-sized business. Each large manufacturer in Japan has transactions with many parts suppliers and sub-contracting manufacturers. Some analysts call this chracteristic of industrial organization "flexible specialization." What kinds of production workers are in these small and mid-size manufacturing companies? Who are the skilled workers, who act as leaders of these production workers? Here we introduce part of my research on this topic which I conducted at the Tokyo Metropolitan Labour Research Institute in 1994.
Titled A Report on the Veteran Production Workers, my research is based on a questionnaire administered in September 1992 to production workers at Tokyo-based small manufacturing enterprises. I analyzed replies which were received from the 894 males and females with the longer years of service at the surveyed enterprises.
1. Male Production Workers
Occupational Career and Skill Formation
With the increased level of education among Japanese young people, the tendency is strong for them to eschew manufacturing jobs. As there is a large gap in working conditions between big and smaller enterprises, smaller-scale manufacturers worry about lack of young worker. This has prolonged the service-age of their production workers. Skilled workers, with average ages of 48.6 years and 30.6 years on the job, have been working in their current firms on average for a continuous period of 22.9.
The common view is that the Japanese labor market is dual-structured and that workers at smaller-scale companies do not benefit from the lifetime employment system and frequently move between corporations. In actuality, to say the least, core workers stay at the same company for a long period of time.
Skilled workers have higher educational background. While many skilled workers 40 years or older have nine years schooling alone they have received intra-firm training. The percentage of those 40 years or younger who have high school degrees is high, and especially, for those 34 years or below the percentage with industrial high school degrees is high. Noteworthy is the fact that, the more skilled the workers are, the higher the percentage with intra-firm training experience. Also, the percentage of those with technical high school education is rather high.
Japanese skilled workers are said to have a strong sense of loyality to their companies. Presently, those skilled workers who have thought the manufacturing jobs were their ideal job when they were students account for a mere 12 percent of the total. Even so, they get involved in their jobs once they enter the company. This can be supported by the fact that many, or 45.1 percent of those surveyed cited as a reason for staying long in their present firm that "my job is fit to me." In addition, 40.6 percent replied that they stayed at the same company for a long time "because I can give full play to my knowledge and skills on the job." This suggests that Japanese corporations have well fostered those new recruits who first joined their firm reluctantly, enabling them to acquire knowledge and skills and this engendered pride in the utilization of these skills.
Workers can be categorized into two major groups, those who have switched to a more difficult job after entering the company(45.9%) and those who have continued to do the same job(40%). The percentage who said they moved to a more difficult job is high in areas of supervision and training education, production planning and product design and engineering. These multi-skilled workers constitute leaders of the small business world.
Of those skilled workers who have worked for over 15 years and have switched to more difficult jobs, a high of 35.8 percent said they have learned at off-the-job training courses at their own expense. Furthermore, many of them noted: "Can do kaizen;" "Can always use judgement properly;" and "Can improve my ability on the job." Moreover, the percentage of those who said: "Can set up machines;" "Can train junior workers;" "Can operate machines properly;" "Can make suggestions;" "Can act for the supervisor" is higher than the rest who said otherwise.
In many cases, at small-and medium-sized enterprises skilled workers are promoted to management positions. With appoximately 40 percent of those in the 40-54 age bracket in management positions. The recognition that even those hired in midcareer can get promotions is higher among workers.
Manual Workers as Knowledge Workers
The desire for production workers to earn qualifications and acquire official additional skills is generally strong regardless of age. The percentage of those wanting to acquire qualifications and skills which are trans-corporate usefull is high in such fields as maintenance, quality control and production planning(46.2%), design and engineering(36.2%) and supervision and training (35.9%). The percentage of those who are learning skills useful for their jobs at their own expenses is high in product design and engineering (25.9%) as well as in supervision and training (21.9%).
More often than not, it is said that work requiring special knowledge and manual production work are differentiated but many male skilled workers consider their jobs strongly intellectual. 59.3 percent said they can improve on their own jobs; 56.6 percent noted they can see the results and achievement of their work and 49.9 percent remarked they constantly need to use judgement to perform their work adequately. Furthermore, 24.5 percent said their work involves much change and the same percent said they can improve their ability through their job.
It is undeniable, however, that the environment in which they work is worse than that in other industries as well as in large manufacturing firms.
Of the male skilled workers, 44.9 percent compained they have eyestrain; 33 percent noted they carry heavy things; 22.8 percent said they feel tension and fatigue; 21 percent remarked there is danger involved; and 20 percent said the job is demanding. The more skilled the workers are, the more highly do they evaluate the internal values of their own work. But at the same time, they strongly tend to point out the heavy work load.
The highly skilled workers are better innovators in their work, better judges of how the work will turnout, better users of their own experience and achievers of what they are involved in. On the other hand, they have more chance to carry heavy objects, feel more tension and fatigue and feel their work is more demanding and dangerous. Highly evaluated internal values of their work do not complement lack of its external values. Rather, those who highly evaluate internal values of their work more strongly tend to harbor doubts on their external working conditions.
Now that the younger generation have come to shun manufacturing jobs, smaller manufacturers are forced to endeavor to improve the work load, the working environment and conditions in order to secure young workers.
Those who are considered more highly skilled point out rather drastic changes occurring recently at the work place in a variety of matters. The more skilled the workers are, the busier they get with fewer young men available. They noted, however, the following: The employer has come to take better care of the employees; holidays were increased with labour hours shortened; elderly peopole are re-evaluated; the work environment has improved; and automation has further progressed.
Participation in Management
Japanese small- and mid-size companies have a low unionization rate. Only 5.8 percent said they can express their views and opinions through the labor union, but this does not mean that without the labor union skilled workers cannot voice their views to management. A majority large number, or 51.1 percent, of the surveyed said their suggestions were heard by management. Twenty-one percent participate in quality control circles and self-management committees. Team activities are widespread also in smaller-scale enterprises.
2. Women Production Workers
Factors behind Long Years of Service
Lifetime employment is supposedly one of the characteristics of the Japan employment structure, but women are said to be generally ruled out of this practice. In actuality, however, some women have been long on the job. In the survey, I conducted research on women production workers.
Those production worker have been on the job for an average of 14.7 years. 25.8 percent had long wanted to have production jobs, lower than the 38.7 percent for male do manual jobs. But 42.6 percent of them 34 years old or younger said they love to work on the production floors, indicating that many young women are not forced choose to do manual jobs. In particular, those who strongly wish to earn marketable skills and qualifications willingly choose production jobs. An increasing number of women, it seems, avoid jobs at big businesses where sex discrimination is rampant and choose to work in production jobs where their skills are more fairly evaluated.
More women production workers than their male counterparts cite "the workplace is close to my home" as reasons for long-term employment. Women have more domestic and childcare duties than men. They give up the idea of searching better jobs far away from home.
Sixty-six percent of the skilled women workers surveyed once thought of quitting. They thought of leaving labour market several times in the long process of their career but got over it. They have been making a hard choice between the two options: to quit or to continue working, and have leaped over the hurdles at stages of their life. I asked the respondents about when and why they were tempted to quit work. The age at which they thought of stopping working was averaged for each reason.
The Table shows that women production workers marry at around 26 years of age, give birth and raise an infant between the age of 28 and 30. These are the major reasons young women workers thought about stopping work. After clearing those hurdles, they wanted to find an ideal job at around the age of 31. This, however, will lead them to feel dissatisfied with working hours and commuting time at about 34 when their first child attends primary school. At about 36, when they probably plan to earn money for their children's education to purchase housing, they express dissatisfaction over low wages. At around 40, when they find educational as well as housing costs are enormous, they feel a gap in treatment between the sexes. Furthemore, they are made aware of the bad work environment, illness and bad interpersonal relations at the company at around 41 as well as demanding jobs at about 43. Changes are also perceived in stages of the family life. At about 43, they may have to care for elderly or sick family members and think of children's education at around 45. Simultaneously, they feel tempted to quit work at 45. When they reach 50, they are asked by the family to quit.
It was found, however, that the consciousness and behavior of women production workers are more diverse than their of male countparts. Analysis of factors behind long-term employment reveals five different types of women workers. The first type are the "career-conscious elite" who cited as reasons for long tenure of employment: "My ability was recognized;" "the boss is fine;" "the company will have trouble without me;" and "I got promotions." The second type of women workers are those who attribute working long years to short-time labor. They said they could stay long in the company thanks to many holidays that are given, little overtime and shorter hours. Also, they noted "to quit working does not pay." The third type are women workers who demonstrated their ability to a full extent. Women of this type think they could stay long at the firm because they could give full play to their knowledge and skills and they received a high salary. The fourth type are rather negative about long term employment, citing "the workplace is close to my house" and "could somehow work long" as reasons for long years of service. The fifth type of female production workers stress the following: "there were many good coworkers;" "the job is less demanding;" "the job fits me;" and "could earn overtime pay." They are the women who adapted well to a comfortable work place.
Analysis of factors behind why they work now also shows that female skilled workers may be classified into several different groups. First is the group of women who work to find something to live for. They noted: "Can find in work something to live for;" "To continue working as long as possible is my ideal;" "Want to be worthwhile in society;" "Want to give full play to knowledge and expertise;" "Find it delightlful to go to work with friends at hand;" "Good for the health;" "Want to earn money to prepare myself for life in old age;" "Want to spend my money to enable children and grandchildren to live in comfort." Second is the householding group of women who work to support themselves and their family. The third group are women who supplement their family incomes and want some money for themselves alone. The fourth group are those who are on the move somehow as they feel socially inferior if they do nothing.
Work and Life
Some women production workers with long employment tenure have a "work ethic" that it is ideal to work while they are able to do so. This, however, does not sum them up as work-aholics. Many consider both the workplace and outside the workplace to be important, and the percentage of female skilled workers who think matters outside of the work place important is higher than male counterparts who think so.
Regarding the way they cope with domestic chores which would constitute an impediment to work, 37.7 percent said they manage all by themselves, followed by 22.8 percent who noted "My spouse helps me out;" 20 percent said "My children give me a helping hand;" and 11.9 percent replied "My parents assist me." Thus, it seems that the family's cooperation is extremely important to prolong their service ages.
Occupational Career and Skill Formation
The average age of women production workers is 48.4. In the period of 30.4 years after graduating from school, they have been working for an average of 22.4 years, and for 11.7years of the whole 22.4-year period, they have been in their present firm.
They are engaged in unskilled jobs more frequently than male production workers. But they expressed the opinion that they "can see how my work turns out to be" (43.1%), "can do the job without any expertise" (41.3%) and "can elaborate a plan to do the job easily and well." (41.2%) Women skilled workers, it seems, do not necessarily perform the classic mind-numbing tasks and in fact many seem to be engaged in the tasks which allows them to think out and judgement themselves.
Many women production workers(45%) have been at the same job ever since they started their cereer. Yet 34.5 percent consider they have moved on to a more difficult job gradually. Only 4 percent have a managerial job, while 18.2 percent hold a non-managerial supervising job and 17.9 percent have a group-leader-function. 5.6 percent said they can do every job in the factory and 28.9 percent remarked they can do several function of the shop-floor jobs. One out of every three said they can do other jobs than their present ones. Thirty-nine percent noted they do anything their managers and supervisors ask them to do.
Labour Shortage and Re-evaluation of Women
Many of the surveyed, or 44.6 percent, said "The Campanyare not necessarily fair in promotion and pay raise." Only 19.5 percent noted "promotion and pay hikes are possible regardless of sex." In addtion, 22 percent said they "experienced discrimination against." The structural shortage of younger workers demands that the management re-evaluate women workers to a fuller extent. Thirty-one point six percent said more work made them busier, while on other hand, a miniscule 8.9 percent remarked there were more people at work. Rather, 47.8 percent said there were no more new recruits and 26.4 percent noted more workers quit. Under these situations, 33.6 percent noted their employer understands anewty the ability of women workers."
As we have seen, Japan's smaller manufacturers have both male and female production workers of high standards. Utilization of women production workers who had thus far suffered from discrimination was ready to advance a midst the shortage of workers. However, recovery in the economics slowdown, which Japan has been experiencing since 1991 is nowhere in sight. Worse yet, the rapid appreciation of the yen is prompting more companies to shift their production facilities offshore. Fear regarding employment security is widespread among production workers of the nation's small- and mid-size corporations. It is feared that the skills of these workers will remain untapped. What is more, it is also feared that moves to re-evaluate the female work, force and especially moves to achieve re-balancing between family and career, will bogg down. Just as progress has started.
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