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A small contractor in Yokohama is challenging the country’s rigid labor market with an unusual strategy — recruiting the middle-aged.

Kanagawa Nihon Kenkou Co., established in 1996, has 18 workers, of whom 14 are over 40.

Many joined the firm after reaching retirement age or early retirement, according to the company.

Despite a serious slump in the construction industry, the company has enjoyed a dramatic increase in sales over three consecutive years, jumping from 160 million yen in the 1999 business year to 1.04 billion yen in 2001.

“In general, middle-aged workers are more responsible and much better skilled than younger ones,” said Yoshinori Konishi, 41, president of the firm.

Before starting his own company, Konishi worked for a contractor where he supervised 10 workers, including some in their 20s and 30s. He found younger people lacked punctuality.

Another reason for focusing on the middle-aged is that he believes jobs at his firm, which include the need to negotiate with older landlords and supervise construction sites, are more suited to older people.

“Young job seekers (and new graduates) always go for big names,” never paying attention to small and medium-size firms, Konishi added.

Even when Konishi’s company advertised through the media or public job placement centers, they rarely got responses from young people.

The firm found it difficult to find highly motivated candidates because they didn’t usually get a sufficient number of candidates to screen in the first place, he said.

About four years ago, the company placed an ad marked “middle-aged workers wanted.” It received more than 30 applications.

“I thought there might be many older people who are highly skilled but have been turned down simply because of their age,” he said. “I’m not saying that every older job seeker is capable, but we get more options to choose the right person if we invite their applications.”

Konishi observes that most small and medium-size companies have faced the same problem. That is why smaller firms often end up with family members in positions at their firms, he added.

To make matters worse, the construction industry draws less attention from young people because they think it is less fulfilling, according to Konishi.

Kanagawa Nihon Kenkou has also introduced systems more favorable to older employees, allowing them to adapt more easily.

“When we hire older workers, all of them are given a management title,” to make sure they don’t feel humiliated when asked about their positions, said Konishi, adding that the official titles are only used as tools and do not necessarily represent their standing in the company.

Paying respect to senior workers has been widely accepted among workers in the firm, reflected in areas such as manner, attitude and ways of speaking.

The president himself — much younger than some of his subordinates — says he makes a point of never being arrogant.

Business hours and working conditions are flexible.

“Some workers who joined us after retiring from other firms no longer want to sacrifice their time as they used to,” he said.

Hajime Shigeoka, 65, joined the company four years ago after reaching retirement age at general contractor Fujita Corp.

He is now in charge of dealing with customers with condominiums to let. His responsibilities include writing up contracts, and dealing with cancellations and complaints.

Shigeoka said he enjoys his new job and is willing to continue working as long as he can.

“I think my role as a senior worker is to contribute to the firm and society using my experience,” Shigeoka said.

The firm is now considering focusing further on middle-aged women, with Konishi believing that older women can act as a primary workforce in sales.

“In general, women are well-mannered, leaving good impressions with customers,” he said.

The firm also eyes employing people with physical disabilities as clerical staff in a planned expansion of the company’s housing management business, which includes managing rents.

The middle-aged and those with disabilities are eyed as the core future workforce of the company, Konishi said, noting they are often deprived of opportunities regardless of their abilities.

For Konishi, the situation overlaps with the company’s position in its struggle against much larger firms in the business market.

Konishi hopes to push forward and expand his business by recruiting such workers, and hopes to act as a role model in challenging Japan’s current job market.

Individually, people don’t have much power, he said, but by combining their efforts a real difference can be made.

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