Vol.41-No.02 February 1, 2002
1. Increasing Unemployment
The unemployment rate in Japan, remaining in the 4.5 to 4.9 percent range throughout 2000 due to the prolonged recession, improved slightly at the beginning of 2001. However, a further downturn of the economy pushed it up above five percent, to a record high of 5.4 percent, in October 2001. A particularly serious problem is the high unemployment rate for young males aged between 15 and 24 and for those aged 55 and over, which marked 10.7 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively.
Where young people are concerned, low jobless rates had been regarded as a characteristic feature of the Japanese labor market. In Japan, career guidance at schools includes the job allocation of graduates; in particular, high schools help students who wish to work after graduation to get job offers so that they can start working right after graduation. This smooth transition from school to workplace had halted any increase in unemployment among young people.
Since the 1990s, however, more high school students have chosen to go on to higher education rather than starting work on graduation, and companies have been shifting their sources for new workers from high school graduates to those who have completed university or other higher education. On top of this, a fall in the demand for high school graduates has also been caused by a shift in companies’ employment strategies, including transferring production sites to abroad and making more use of non-regular workers such as part-timers; and by the overall decline in labor demand due to a change in industrial structures and the long-lasting economic slump. As a result, more and more high school students, unlike those in the past, fail to get job offers before graduation, so that they become unemployed on leaving school. Meanwhile, the expansion of the service sector, particularly in the large cities, has allowed many more young people to work as arubaito (side-job workers) or part-time workers, but such non-regular workers are more likely to become unemployed than regular workers, and unemployment among young people increases through this route, too. In addition, even when high schoolers successfully get regular employment after graduation, a large number in recent years voluntarily give up their jobs, becoming unemployed with no immediate prospect of re-employment.
Effective measures for getting such young people out of the unemployment pool are considered to include revising career guidance at school, offering job guidance at job-placement agencies such as the Public Employment Security Offices, and providing more opportunities to develop vocational abilities.
On the other hand, the story of unemployment among older persons is different. Unlike unemployed young people, many older persons are involuntarily unemployed because of the prolonged recession and changes in the industrial structure, or because they are obliged to give up their jobs due to the bankruptcies or restructuring measures taken by their employers. Also, those who have retired because of the mandatory retirement age, commonly set at age 60 in Japan, account for a substantial proportion of the unemployed aged 55 or over.
2. Difficulty in Re-employment of Older Workers
These older workers are believed to find it difficult to get new jobs, remaining unemployed for a long time, for two reasons: first, the scarcity of job vacancies meeting the wishes of such older job seekers, and the fact that the abilities of the job seekers fail to match up to the requirements of the job offers, if any.
The failure to find satisfactory jobs is, in a sense, attributable to the fact that, while quite a few older job seekers were in managerial positions before entering the unemployment pool, such positions are seldom available. Moreover, under the seniority wage system, whereby workers with longer tenures receive higher wages, older employees still at work naturally receive high wages. These wage levels, however, are believed to be excessive in relation to their on-the-spot productivity, so that once they quit their high-paid positions, they will face a substantial reduction in wages when they try to get re-employed. This is considered to be a reason why workers in this age group have difficulty finding desirable jobs.
Despite all this, however, the belief that although there are job advertisements, older workers are not qualified in terms of vocational ability, is hardly reasonable, in that they do in fact have long working experience. The gap between apparent vocational ability and actual job experience can be explained in the following way. Lifetime employment, where positions are secure from the time employees join the companies until they reach the mandatory retirement age, has been prevalent in Japan. Of course, this pattern is just the standard; and not all workers in fact remain in a single company for good. Nevertheless, where workers employed in large firms are concerned, particularly white-collar workers, this pattern is regarded as typical. People set on this course are hired en masse right after graduation, learn their tasks and the ways to handle them through on-the-job-training, and experience various tasks within the company via allocation to various positions within a relatively short time. Workers with such experience become experts in various tasks in their own companies, but do not know the way people work at other companies at all. In other words, it is considered that vocational skills acquired under the lifetime employment system are unique to individual companies, and not necessarily applicable to tasks in other companies, and that the ability of such workers is not valued by those seeking new employees.
3. Career Exchange Plaza
Although it is said to be a difficult task, there is an organization which performs well in helping older white-collar unemployed people to find re-employment. It is the Associations of Employment Development for Senior Citizens located across the country.
The associations, governmental corporate organizations, have a central body and local associations in each prefecture. They provide consulting for enterprises concerning the employment of older workers, and assist such workers in developing their abilities and making their career plans. The local associations provide older job seekers registered at Human Resource Banks in each prefecture with, if they wish, two weeks or so of schooling for re-employment and offer space with equipment such as computers, facsimile machines, telephones and so on, where they can freely conduct job-searching activities. This service, called the Career Exchange Plaza Project, was launched in October 1999 as part of emergency employment measures taken by the Obuchi Cabinet in Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka. Later, the project’s business was gradually undertaken by the prefectural Associations of Employment Development for Senior Citizens also, and currently more than 5,000 older job seekers per year take advantage of the service in 12 areas. The services offered are more or less the same at each association, but the maximum number of job seekers accepted varies between 25 and 60. What follows describes the case of the local association in Tokyo which launched the project on a large scale in the early days with a capacity of 60 persons.
The project report of the Tokyo Career Exchange Plaza says:
The Career Exchange Plaza is a project launched as a part of the emergency employment measures aimed at workers forced to give up their positions in companies obliged by the prolonged recession to take restructuring measures.
Older white-collar unemployed persons in particular, who do not have sufficient knowledge of the labor market or the know-how for job-searching activities, have difficulty finding appropriate jobs. The project aims at offering them knowledge and know-how via seminars and provision of information, helping them to deploy job-seeking activities positively for themselves.
Persons eligible for the service are those who are recommended by the Tokyo Human Resource Bank and who have experience as managers and officials, or as professional and technical workers. Each person, as a member of the Plaza, has access to the service, in general, for 12 weeks.
In the initial two weeks the service mainly offers seminars concerning how to write a career record, the types of workers desired by companies, interview skills, and practice in using computers, and in the remaining 10 weeks weekly information guidance, plus voluntary meetings among members to share experiences, are provided.
The Career Exchange Plaza helps with re-employment via, for example, meetings to exchange experiences, led by coordinators with varied expertise and experience, and personal counseling.
The Tokyo Career Exchange Plaza two years have passed since its establishment holds 17 seminars per year, with a maximum of 60 participants per seminar. In general, the project is aimed at older workers aged 45 or over, people aged between 45 and 55 accounting for some 62 percent of all registered persons in fiscal 2001. At the same time, members aged 60 or over also accounted for nearly 10 percent. After the completion of the membership period, that is within three months, about 40 percent of members successfully get re-employed, a fairly high figure compared to ordinary job seekers in this age group. Tokyo, the capital of Japan, is at the same time its business center, and the development of the service sector in this area has put managers, and professional and technical workers in high demand. Thus older white-collar job seekers in Tokyo are more likely to get re-employed than their counterparts in other regions. (This is borne out by the high success rate of job seekers registered at a Career Exchange Plaza in the second-largest city in Japan, Osaka.) In addition, there is no doubt that, because membership of the Plaza is open to job seekers registered at the Human Resource Banks, the services offered by the Banks are also effective in finding jobs for them. The Human Resource Banks are branches of the Public Employment Security Offices, and specialize in job-placement services aimed exclusively at older workers who have work experience as managers and officials, or as professional and technical workers. The Career Exchange Plazas, for the convenience of users, are located near a Human Resource Bank, and many in fact are within the same premises. Regardless of these factors, it is certainly true that the high success rate of re-employment must be attributable to the effects of this project. What kind of effects, then, does it actually bring about?
4. Schooling in Preparation for Re-employment
The Career Exchange Plaza Project consists mainly of three aspects: (1) schooling in preparation for re-employment, including the use of personal computers, (2) offering space with Internet-accessible computers which people can use freely for job searching, and (3) arranging opportunities for members to share and exchange their experiences. Of these, it is the schooling and the sharing of experiences that seem to contribute most to the success of the project, particularly since these are services provided by no other agencies, including the Human Resource Banks.
Schooling in preparation for re-employment at the Tokyo Career Exchange Plaza consists of seminars to support job-searching activities, which are held for 10 days. Under the program, members learn about the labor market for older white-collar workers on the first day; approaches and strategies for getting re-employed, how to obtain and use information, and brushing up one’s vocational abilities on the second; creating a career record on the third day; preparation for applying for jobs and interviews on the fourth; understanding small and medium-sized enterprises on the fifth; mental health and case studies of re-employment on the sixth; planning life-long working lives on the seventh and eighth; and learning pc skills on the ninth and 10th days. Other local Plazas across the country provide more or less similar types of seminars with minor differences such as the relative time spent on individual topics.
Older white-collar job seekers have in many cases been squeezed out of large companies, but their possibility for re-employment is generally confined to small and medium-sized companies. Thus, understanding of the labor market and of small and medium-sized companies is given priority. What members are most eager to learn are computer skills. The project sets the goal here at a level where individuals can create their own career records, and handle applications for job vacancies on the Internet. In other words, the core of the schooling program lies in drawing up career records and creating a plan for life-long working lives.
Career records here mean a personal record of experienced jobs. Why, though, should people be required to learn methods of drawing up such records and planning life-long working lives as means of finding new employment? The answer seems to be related to the employment practices in Japan described above, and to the consequent factors making it difficult for older job seekers to find new jobs.
Under an employment practice where employees are hired immediately after school graduation at a fixed time of the year and en masse, and are taught tasks and methods of handling them via on-the-job training, the qualification required for white-collar jobs is not specific abilities in executing specific tasks but potential ability to learn tasks. At the same time, with the type of personnel management by which employees are rotated and experience various positions within a relatively short time, individual workers rarely seem to be particularly aware about their own jobs and the skills required to perform them. Consequently, it can be considered that workers at workplaces in Japan seldom consider their jobs in terms of specific tasks, and also that companies do not commonly evaluate and treat their employees in terms of jobs. Hence, when asked what they have done, or what kind of duties they can manage, many job seekers are not able to describe specific tasks or abilities in their career record, though they can name sections and departments they have belonged to, and the titles they have held. In short, they appear unaware about both what they have done and what they can do.
This situation does not put job seekers in any predicament, if they are young, in that they begin with basic tasks and are expected to devote a high learning ability to learn the know-how of handling their tasks. However, this is not the case with older workers. Since their ability to absorb new skills is lower because of their age, companies cannot expect them to acquire new know-how after hiring them. Moreover, and more importantly, companies expect older workers to be able to act effectively from the start. Whatever the kind of firm, advertising a job means that there is a vacancy at the workplace and the company needs somebody to fill the position: the company has a clear idea of the tasks of the position. But job seekers do not clearly describe their past jobs and the tasks they are capable of performing. The toughness of the labor market for older workers is often attributed to the mismatching between companies wanting new workers and workers seeking jobs, but it also seems to be due to this gap of perception concerning jobs between the two sides. Vocational abilities acquired under the lifetime employment system are firm-specific abilities, and are not supposed to be applicable to other firms. In fact, though, the chief trouble is the inability of workers to describe their abilities in an objectively understandable manner. In Japan, career counselors often come across cases where older job seekers with ample work experience are unable to draw up their own curriculum vitae effectively. However excellent the counselor may be, it is impossible to help them in this state to find appropriate jobs.
What is essential for workers under these circumstances is to grasp and express objectively and accurately their own vocational abilities and job experience. Only by doing this can job seekers find suitable employers. The Plazas, therefore, allot one day of the seminars to the theme creating a career record so that participants can review their working experience and draw up a curriculum vitae on the lines of: basics of job application; basics of curriculum vitae; advantageous presentation of own job experience; detailed description of jobs; understanding and sorting out types of tasks experienced so far; precise defining of special skills; correct ways of job analysis; and final summing up of career records. The crucial point in matching job seekers to job advertisements lies in grasping work experience in terms of specific tasks performed, and judging whether or not workers with particular experience are capable of performing particular tasks, but ordinary workers do not even know how to grasp and analyze jobs. In line with this, one of the aims of the learning pc skills seminars is to facilitate the drawing up of career records.
5. Planning Life-long Working Lives
Another topic given priority at the seminars is planning for life-long work. Under the lifetime¡¡employment system, once a worker joins a company right after graduation, his or her employment is secured, unless there is a highly exceptional reason, until the mandatory retirement age of 55 to 60. Vocational choice and consideration of personal work style were important decisions for young people about to engage in work, but once they had got a job, the rest of their working life was more or less taken care of. However, first of all, because of the lengthening of life expectancy, people now live their retirement for some 20 years after age 60. At the same time, because the pensionable age for the old-age pension plan due to the greying of the population is to be raised from 60 to 65, people will need to earn incomes by some means or other to fill in the gap. The change in the minimum pensionable age now requires everyone to contemplate their life after retirement before they actually reach the age of 60. Moreover, the prolonged economic recession and changes in the industrial structure are obliging companies to carry out restructuring measures, so that an increasing number of them are encouraging their employees to retire early, or dismissing employees in their 40s who are at the peak of their powers. In other words, so far the majority of workers have not needed to face a turning point in their working lives such as switching jobs, leaving their companies, or finding other jobs, and have not been obliged to make decisions until mandatory retirement. But now that the lifetime employment system is collapsing, employees in their 40s and 50s who have been considered fixtures at their workplaces are required to have their own concrete views on, and plans for, their working lives.
Older job seekers covered by this project are workers who have lost their jobs due to encouraged early retirement or dismissal, and thus face the need to think about their lives after losing their jobs and to make plans for work in the future. Job-placement is generally based on suitability: what is the ideal working style, what kind of job is the most suitable, and so on; an individual’s life plan needs to be clarified if job openings are to be found for him or her. In practice, though, the older job seekers concerned have not so far under the traditional lifetime employment system been required to have any particular blueprint for their working lives, and thus are now faced with the necessity of designing explicit plans for a working future.
At the same time, to think about one’s own working style also leads to a deeper understanding of oneself, and forming a concept of oneself as well. This formation of a self-concept does not necessarily involve a plan for life-long working, and Plazas in some areas adopt methods of counseling such as transactional analysis. This series of educational programs, including the drawing up of career records and plans for life-long work, are conducted by experts in personnel management, or industrial counselors.
6. Career Guidance in Demand
The meetings to share and exchange experiences are opportunities for members to meet up regularly, to report on their own job-search activities, and to investigate possible activities hereafter. The meetings also play a substantial role in helping these older job seekers to actively take steps towards re-employment. Losing a job tends to deprive workers of self-confidence and make them passive, but to find other people in the same boat and to share experiences can give them an opportunity to re-evaluate themselves. Also, job searching at their age acquaints them with the actual situation of the labor market and helps them to estimate their own value in it from an objective point of view. Coordinators, who have experience in personnel management or industrial counseling and are in charge of taking the initiative at meetings, accept individual career counseling, too. The cycle (job search activity meeting to exchange experiences individual career counseling [back to] job search activity) can be regarded as a basic pattern for counseling.
The series of activities that includes career counseling is precisely what is meant by vocational guidance. Vocational guidance is an educational activity which began in the early 20th century in the U.S.A. when society had become industrialized and new working styles as employed workers had emerged. The aim then was to give guidance concerning ways of living and working for young people coming out of rural areas to cities for work. In Japan, too, vocational guidance went together with the progress of industrialization; after World War II, as seen above, the guidance was institutionalized as career guidance at school and vocational guidance at the Public Employment Security Offices, contributing to high economic growth and the stability of the national livelihood. The Career Exchange Plaza Project is in the same line, being vocational guidance aimed at older people. Success with this project will imply that this type of undertaking is in demand. Vocational guidance which, it had been believed, was in demand solely for young people at the transitional stage from school to workplace, can then be seen as needed at various stages of working life nowadays. If perceived as guidance covering all stages of individual working life, it should perhaps be called career guidance. In order to provide this kind of service for a wider range of people, it will be necessary to train many more industrial counselors and to allocate these experts not only to public counseling organizations, but also to various other places such as schools and companies.
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