Published Online:

'New' Minds for New Business

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

The Mitsubishi Corporation is Japan's largest diversified trading company, so its manager for recruitment and development, Kazuaki Hikida, has little trouble finding qualified applicants for the 150 managerial-trainee positions he fills each year. More than 1,000 recent college graduates apply.

But like a growing number of Japanese businessmen, Mr. Hikida is less than satisfied with the graduates he interviews. "I see a lot of narrowly focused, standardized individuals," he says glumly. What is more, the new graduates seem to Mr. Hikida "exhausted already" by the test-laden climb through the academic hierarchy.

"We have to ask ourselves," he says,ll this applicant have enough fuel to burn?"'

Until very recently, corporate leaders in Japan had nothing but praise for the nation's schools. They were grateful for the superbly skilled workforce that had powered their economic miracle. Now they are singing a slightly different tune.

Search for 'a Creative Mind'

Business has joined government in looking for "a new type of educated person," says Noritake Kobayashi, a Keio University business professor. Today's ideal job candidate, he says, is a person the schools have not been geared to produce, one whose strengths are "a creative mind and an independent way of thinking."

But instead of the creative independence they seek, business leaders are finding independence of a very different sort in today's graduates. Increasingly, corporate recruiters must ask themselves not only about burnout but also about stability. Their question is one seldom heard before in Japanese industry: Will new employees stay with the company, or will they become what Mr. Hikida calls "jumpy"?

With a secure and lucrative lifetime-employment system, Japan has not experienced the kind of corporate job-hopping common in America. Workers are paid and promoted on the basis of seniority within the organization. They receive handsome retirement benefits after long service with a corporation, and, until now, most of them have been happy to remain with the likes of Sony, or Honda, or Seiko throughout their careers.

Demise of the 'Mitsubishi Person'

But today's young employees have "different value systems," according to Mr. Hikida. They no longer want to go through the required transfers within the company, he says, or to become "a Mitsubishi person" like their predecessors.

"It's getting to be that success in competition and in the corporation is not equated with real success in life," he says. "Now students want more time for relaxation and the family."

Like Mr. Hikida, Hisashi Umehara, a Nissan Motor Company executive, is worried about the new workers' attitudes. He fears that the high level of teamwork Japanese corporations have depended on may be slipping away because the schools no longer provide enough of what he calls "social training." Such skills as communication and cooperation, he says, have been the victims of the excessive emphasis on testing.

Mr. Umehara believes teachers, obsessed with transferring test knowledge, slight the intangibles that build the group ethic. "From kindergarten through elementary and secondary school, students are always preparing for entrance examinations," he complains.

Signs of the Times

Contradictions, such as this search for creative mavericks in a country built by team players, are emblematic of modern Japan. It is a strong, rooted society with growing pains. Its people revere their heritage but enjoy the fruits of an ultra-modern lifestyle.

In today's Japan, poverty is minimal, racial and ethnic discord practically nonexistent, and unemployment--for the moment--almost nil. National surveys suggest that more than 90 percent of the people considers themselves "middle-class." The young are urbanized, upwardly mobile, and leisure-oriented. For those who can withstand the pressures of schooling well enough to graduate, there are twice as many jobs as competitors for them.

And yet, the Japanese are aware of the future's uncertainty. Their leaders tell them they are at "a major turning point." Their scholars and journalists give them these facts:

Japanese economic growth has begun to stabilize; young workers can look forward to fewer job openings as the decade wanes. To make matters worse, the country's population is aging so fast ("at a rate unprecedented among modern nations," one scholar says) that multiplying social and financial burdens await the coming generations. Today, there are 15 Japanese workers supporting every senior citizen. Thirty years from now, there will be only three workers for each retiree.

A corresponding age shift in the workforce will have grave implications for the nation's economic competitiveness. In a strict seniority-based employment system, where pay scales correlate with age, the payroll demands of such a steep rise in average worker-age will surely mean higher prices for Japanese goods.

Ingenuity and the Knowledge Economy

The only way for the Japanese to keep ahead, say their experts, is through brainpower. But not the brainpower that built their industrial prowess. The present Japanese worker is well-schooled and scientifically literate. But to build a knowledge-intensive economy that will lead the world in high technology, which is the goal of Japanese industry, a new superworker must emerge--one who possesses the creative ingenuity to spark new product lines and production processes.

This will be an industrial reversal with tremendous consequences for the education system. As the scientist Masanori Moritani explains in Japanese Technology: Getting the Best for Least, there are "fewer epochal technologies coming out of America and Europe" for Japanese industry to refine and apply. The skilled workforce will not be enough to fill that void; innovative minds will have to create the substance of Japan's second-wave industrial surge.

Yet, statistics show that every year since 1975 Japan has increased, rather than decreased, the amount of technology it imports.

This is why so many businessmen, like Mitsubishi's Hikida, are supporting the government's education line. "Creativity" and "diversity" are the code words. What is actually sought is nothing less than a new approach to learning, one that minimizes the pressure to retain mountains of facts for entrance examinations and maximizes the opportunity to stand out in the academic crowd.

Corporations and Meritocracy

Ironically, however, the corporate world has helped to build and perpetuate the educational practices it now wants changed.

Isao Amagi, a special adviser to the minister of education, says the "priority-hiring" practices of both business and government have been a major factor in increasing the competition for slots at elite schools. Both private industry and the public sector use the examination system as a kind of screening device, he says. The most powerful companies and the most prestigious government agencies recruit almost entirely from the best colleges.

Employment statistics dramatically testify to this fact. Japan's first Imperial universities, established during the Meiji reign, were those at Tokyo and Kyoto. They remain the most prestigious institutions in the country, and to be a graduate virtually assures success, particularly in the case of Tokyo University. Half of Japan's postwar prime ministers have been Tokyo graduates, as are about one-fourth of the presidents of the top 100 corporations. And in a 1978 survey, more than 62 percent of the government officials at the level of section chief or above confirmed that they were Tokyo graduates, including 89 percent of the top Ministry of Finance officials and 60 percent of those in the Ministry of Education.

Mitsubishi's recruiting manager, Mr. Hikida, suggests that one way to ease the problem of "standardized" white-collar workers would be to hire students from a greater variety of colleges. Over the last decade, he says, Mitsubishi has opened up its application system, considering candidates from all Japanese colleges and hiring from as many as 30 different institutions.

Contradictory Messages

Though the recruitment pool has been wider, however, the results have been basically the same: Some 60 percent of the 150 managerial-level trainees still come from four elite universities, with Tokyo University leading the group.

With such well-entrenched management practices, corporations have had a hard time convincing the Japanese public of their sincerity in seeking diversity, independence, and creative flair. Two surveys of Japanese corporate attitudes released this past fall by Japan's Nippon Recruitment Center, a large employment-information agency, show that, despite what industry says it needs, its pool of potential young employees thinks it wants something vastly different.

One of the Nippon surveys queried more than 6,000 male and female college students; the other questioned officials at 888 corporations. Among the findings were these:

Only 8 percent of the students thought that basic academic abilities were a major consideration in corporate hiring decisions, but almost half of the corporate executives said they were of prime importance.

Almost one in three of the corporation officials said they put heavy emphasis on a student's expertise, but less than 10 percent of the students thought their expertise would win them a corporate job.

Most of the students said that, in a job interview, they would stress sociability and cooperativeness more than any other traits.

Toshiyuki Watanabe, a city-council member in Kudamatsu, a small city on the inland sea near Hiroshima, voices the skepticism of many Japanese: "Corporations say they want a person who is an innovative, creative individual who can accomplish great things. On the other hand, they want students who are broadly trained. It's a contradiction. And the message that has been passed down is that corporations don't want innovative or talented people. They want 'yes men' who obey everything."

The Virtue of Adaptability

Mitsubishi's top recruiter casts the seeming contradictions in a more positive light. He says the way Japanese companies are run makes adaptability essential for both employer and employee.

Mrs. Takahashi presented the boy with a Fujitsu microcomputer, which retails for about $525.

"America has a system that matches the graduate--already something of a specialist--with the opening," he says. "In Japan, corporations seek generalists whose acquired skills will be company property. This assures great flexibility in the use of personnel.

"Japanese executives don't specialize; they regularly move from one corporate department to the next," he adds. "In the process, they become expert in the structure and internal workings of the company."

Mitsubishi tries to give its top-level employees three different work situations in their first 14 years, he says, varying either job responsibility or geographic location.

"We need people who have basic capability and general talent. It is our responsibility to train them, whether they have studied business, law, economics, or engineering."

Training for 'Acquired Skills'

This preference for "acquired skills" extends all the way down the corporate ladder to include blue-collar workers. It has created a complex network of corporate training programs that both augments and, in some cases, alters the content of formal education.

Some 80 percent of Japanese companies have worker-training programs of some kind, and the larger the company, the more rich and diverse its training options. "Companies employing 5,000 people or more spend about five times more per person on education than small enterprises employing 100 people or fewer," says a researcher at Hiroshima University's Research Institute for Higher Education.

In a 1980 study conducted for the Japan Labor Institute, Haruo Shimada, a Keio University economics professor, found that in the previous decade 70 percent of all corporations had training programs for new employees with college degrees; two-thirds had programs for new workers with high-school diplomas; and 55 percent provided training for middle-school graduates new to the job. About one-fourth of the corporations also offered training programs to workers already on the payroll. (A study released last month by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching indicated that 75 percent of American corporns conduct worker-training programs on both basic and advanced levels.)

The Nissan Motor Company spent more than $3.3 million to train its 18,000 white-collar workers last year and an additional $8.3 million to train 42,000 blue-collar workers. Like several other major Japanese corporations, Nissan operates its own private technical high school, giving accredited instruction to 100 students each year in four professional subject areas: machinery, electronics, sheet metal, and automobiles. (The International Business Machines Corporation, by comparison, spent upwards of $700 million last year on training of all kinds, according to the Carnegie report.)

Mr. Umehara of Nissan is proud of the fact that many of his company's best general foremen were once among the worst students at their public schools. They needed seasoning and direction, he says. They may have lacked the best academic abilities, but they had what Mr. Umehara calls "the human qualities." Nissan training developed these, he says.

Impact on Formal System

The darker side of this corporate education network is its impact on the development of the formal education system. Gradducation in particular has suffered, because Japanese corporations prefer to conduct their own research and train their own researchers.

Toshio Toyoda, a professor at the Institute of Developing Economies, reports that only 1.3 percent of 22-year-olds attend graduate school in his country, well behind the proportion in other industrialized nations. By comparison, the figure is 16.3 percent in the United States and 13.2 percent in West Germany.

This in-house research-and-training orientation of Japanese companies has also left the schools complacent about providing up-to-the minute, technology-based training. Consequently, they have lagged behind other nations' schools in giving students hands-on experience with computers and other advanced teaching aids.

Despite widespread U.S. assumptions to the contrary, the Japanese are "a few years behind" American schools in putting microcomputers in the classroom and in training teachers to use computer-assisted instruction, according to researchers at the country's National Center for New Media in Education.

Even in vocational programs, this lack is felt. Haru-o Otah, the principal of Tokyo Public Industrial High School, says that most of the equipment in his machine and electronics classes is badly out of date and that his school has too few microcomputers to adequately teach students that technology. With recent government budget cuts and no incentive for corporate help, Mr. Otah expects more, not less, obsolescence in his classrooms.

Graduates Industry 'Doesn't Want'

But the future of students enrolled in public vocational or technical high schools is bleak with or without the classroom handicap. Already facing a shrinking blue-collar job market as the country shifts toward service and high-technology industries, they now must compete with graduates from a growing variety of technical-training institutions.

At the peak of the nation's economic growth in the 1960's, there were four vocational-high-school students for every six academic-high-school students. Today the ratio has dropped to three to seven.

"The diploma still has the same value," says Fuku-o Masuda, principal of Kudamatsu Technical High School, "but industry doesn't want to hire our graduates now." Vocational high schools are being "overwhelmed," he says, by growth in other types of education.

In technical training, vocational high schools now compete with the public-sector systems of junior colleges and five-year technical colleges, both postwar innovations, as well as vocational-training centers, higher industrial schools, and other corporate training programs. His graduates, says Mr. Masuda, are no longer recognized by businesses as being "special."

'All Our Workers Can Read'

Yet it is at this lower stratum of the workforce--and not at the rarified heights where creative minds are now sought--that the Japanese system of schooling has had its greatest economic impact. Assembly-line workers receive a public education that is, through high school, essentially the same as their counterparts in management. Unlike the American blue-collar worker, who can earn a diploma with no real grasp of math or science, the Japanese worker is conversant with highly technical matters.

As Thomas P. Rohlen notes in his book Japan's High Schools: "The great accomplishment of Japanese primary and secondary education lies not in its creation of a brilliant elite but in its generation of such a high average level of capability."

Kazoyuki Shindo, a vice president at Toyo Kohan, a major producer of tin plate, confirms this contention, insisting that many of the blue-collar workers at his factory could, with a little training, handle his top-level job. Japanese firms make fewer distinctions between employees than U.S. companies, he says. There is less difference between the ability, deportment, and even salary of managers and workers. "After all, anybody can stamp papers all day," Mr. Shindo says.

Like many other Japanese executives, Mr. Shindo would like to see more emphasis in the schools on foreign languages and international courses. He says that would be an economic plus in an exporting economy. He can also see Japan's overall need for research innovation. He knows the economy is changing. But for now, Mr. Shindo is extremely satisfied with his workforce.

So is Nissan's Mr. Umehara. When asked the main difference between Japanese and U.S. automobile manufacturers, he says simply, "All our workers can read."

Web Only

Pages 20-23

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented