Students give job-hunting system a big F

by David Mcneill and Chie Matsumoto

College students habitually complain about being overloaded with study. Not Shingo Hori though, who demands to be allowed to study more.

“It’s ridiculous. We don’t have time to mature as people or as students,” says the 21-year-old philosophy major at prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. “We’re forced to spend all our time looking for work.”

With job-hunting season peaking, Hori took his grievance to the streets around Waseda last month with a group of about 30 other students who brandished slogans that had some observers doing a double take.

“Screw job hunting!” said one placard. “Garbage jobs, even after graduation,” moaned another.

Ichino Yoshiya, 28, dressed in a maid’s uniform to deliver his odd rhetorical missile: “Make your own tea!”

Though small in number, the protesters claimed to speak for thousands of university students who resent having to start their job search not long after they enroll.

By graduation, many will have spent 18 months and hundreds of hours preparing for and attending job interviews and recruitment fairs, often all but abandoning study for months on end.

“University is supposed to be a place to learn, but more than half our lives are spent out job hunting,” says Shono Mayo, a master’s student at Ochanomizu Women’s University. “Why does the system have to work like this?”

One reason is that the results speak for themselves: More than 95 percent of about 400,000 graduates will have received an all-important “naitei” (notice of acceptance of employment) before leaving university next year, the education ministry says.

But the cost is high: months of wasted study time in universities with some of the highest tuition fees in the world. Hori says the damage runs deeper than time and money. “Companies want to mold their employees, which is why they start recruiting so soon, instead of giving us time to become mature, thinking people.”

Corporations prefer their new recruits fresh from universities, rather than freighted with a few years’ experience of traveling or working for other firms.

The recruiting system began in the early 1950s as a response to labor shortages and has caused years of tension between corporations and universities, which complain that it disrupts study.

With the economy in the doldrums, anxiety and competition for jobs are rising. Unemployment hit a postwar high of 5.7 percent in the summer before improving to 5.1 in October. The unemployment rate for 15- to 24-year-olds rose 2.4 percentage points to 9.9 percent over the year to last July, according to OECD data.

Yui Tsuchiya, a political science major in her final year at Sophia University in Tokyo, estimates that she spends more time looking for work than in the classroom.

“It’s about 60-40. It makes studying very difficult, especially if you have an interview. You can’t think about essays.”

By graduation in April, she estimates she will have taken part in 50 job interviews.

The system is particularly galling for graduates who find that their promise of employment has been abruptly canceled — a record 2,000 job offers were rescinded last spring amid a wave of corporate bankruptcies.

A cancellation notice is a disaster for those on the receiving end because it means the search for work must begin all over again.

A voluntary code by the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), the nation’s largest business lobby group, currently bars companies from starting to look for graduates too early, but the code is being flouted, critics say.

Recruitment is being pushed earlier, to juniors and even sophomores, laments Hori. “I’m as afraid as anyone of not being able to get work, but university just becomes a waste of time.”

Students say those who miss out on recruitment the first time are instantly relegated to the back of the pack.

“You don’t belong anywhere if you don’t get a job straight after you graduate,” explains Yumi Nishikawa, a student at Sophia. “If you fail, you’re stigmatized.”