Magazine article Personnel

Sayonara to Womb-to-Tomb?

Magazine article Personnel

Sayonara to Womb-to-Tomb?

Article excerpt


Company XYZ is in trouble. Like many corporations, the manufacturer of high-performance widgets can't fill all its positions. The surprise here is that this fictitious firm isn't an American company. It represents a typical Japanese company.

What's front-page news in America these days has also affected Japanese firms: Like the United States, Japan has an aging population; it has an acute shortage of skilled entry-level workers and, at the same time, it has too many workers in maturing industries. Across the board, Japanese industry has too many chiefs and too few braves.

Seeds of discontent

One indication of the changing face of the Japanese workforce is that lifetime employment, the backbone of human resources management in Japan for the past 60 years, is becoming less popular.

"Look at a university grad today," explains John Harlow, managing director of the Asia/Pacific Region for Korn/Ferry International Inc. "He'll get a two-year MBA degree at a European or United States school. That education is like opening a Pandora's box; he's no longer content with fitting into a very bureaucratic organization. Foreign exposure is sowing the seeds in discontent."

In 1987, Seiko-Epson Corp. hired 100 "mid-term" employees, that is, people from other companies. This year it snapped up 300 mid-termers. (The electronics company has about 8,700 employees in Japan.) "If we could have hired more, we probably would have," says Karin Hegge, the Tokyo-based corporation's recruitment specialist. And they are not alone.

Alan Schonberg, president of Cleveland, Ohio-based Management Recruiters International Inc., sees a lush recruitment market in Japan. "We started to look at Japan three years ago and felt the market wasn't quite ready," recalls Schonberg. "It that three-year interim, 250 Japanese search firms have established themselves in Tokyo alone." Today, "half of all Japanese professionals are open to changing jobs," Schonberg maintains.

Not everyone is embracing the concept as whole-heartedly as Seiko-Epson. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. has hired a "limited number of employees" from other companies. "However, this number is gradually increasing," a company spokesperson in Osaka says.

"There is more job mobility. Mostly it is executives joining joint-venture or foreign companies," says Akiro Arai, vice president of Korn/Ferry International's Japan practice. Indeed, foreign companies with new Japanese subsidiaries have little choice but to hire middle managers away from Japanese companies.

Keeping the best

As a result, Japanese firms are beginning to worry about employee retention. "Retaining employees is important here," Seiko-Epson's Hegge says. "With the shortage of workers, it hurts when an employee leaves."

Seiko-Epson is moving to reduce defections from the ranks of offering more perks. According to Hegge, the company is now reimbursing employees for commuting costs and is also getting up a flextime program.

Japan will have the most aged population of all industrial countries by 2010, but Seiko-Epson Corp. is already feeling the pinch, trying to replace retiring workers. "We call up a candidate to offer them a job, but it's too late. `Sorry but I've already accepted a position with Mitsubishi,' is what they tell us," says Hegge.

It's not that Seiko-Epson is considered a poor employer. There just aren't enough job applicants to go around. In 1989, the number of job offers outnumbered applicants for the first time in 14 years. According to the Economic Planning Agency, the number of job offers per job entrant had risen to 1.41 in 1989, up from 1.01 job offers in 1988.

Gentlemen's agreements

The new labor conditions also mean that students aren't slavishly honoring employment agreements the way they used to. Corporate recruits typically sign agreements to work for companies. …

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