Are the days of the job-offering “recruiter” numbered? In Japan, recruiters are young employees who help their companies woo recent graduates from their alma maters. But the long-standing practice — criticized for favoring students from a small circle of select universities — is giving way to more open and fair practices.

Many experts believe, however, that the recruiting practice based on favoritism will remain rather than die out completely, as academic background and old school ties still count when assessing potential employees.

“The term recruiter first appeared about 30 years ago, but gained wide recognition during the bubble economy between 1987 and 1991,” even though such hiring practices were common by large companies before then, said Jun Takahashi, who heads a consulting firm specializing in employment and job-hunting.

Specific screening procedures under the recruiter system vary by company. Some send college students a list of recruiters — that is, graduates of their university — and ask students to contact them. In other cases, recruiters contact prospective students through old-boy connections.

While students contacted by recruiters are not necessarily guaranteed a place with the firm, they have a clear advantage over other applicants.

When the economy was expanding, companies were chronically short of labor and their personnel sections actively sought to meet hiring quotas. Recruiters then played an important role in getting the jump on rival companies in securing fresh blood, Takahashi said.

Training programs based on the notion of lifetime employment also helped the recruiter system become entrenched, because firms could afford to spend up to 10 years providing employees with in-house training by rotating them through various sections.

Because companies could spend so much time training freshmen from scratch, they placed greater importance on educational background, Takahashi said.

But this has changed with the economic downturn. The long-term employment system has collapsed, and firms cannot afford to spend an inordinate amount of time training new employees. Methods for filling openings have therefore become more diverse, with many firms hiring people in midcareer to build a more able workforce.

As a result, job-hunting has become tougher for college students, and the significance of recruiters has waned, Takahashi said.

Changes in personnel trends led to the 1997 abolition of an agreement between business organizations and the education ministry that set a fixed time frame for when firms could approach students. This kept companies from jumping the gun at a time when there was a labor shortage, and allowed students for their schoolwork.

After the agreement ended, many firms, including major brokerage house Nomura Securities Co., dropped their recruiter programs in favor of open-entry systems.

“After the agreement was abolished, it became impossible to maintain the recruiter system because companies started recruiting much earlier and prolonged the hiring process,” Nomura spokesman Tsukasa Noda said.

Recruiters usually help with their firm’s hiring activities while doing their own work. With the prolongation of the hiring process, Nomura soon found it hard to keep its younger employees working as recruiters over a long period of time.

The increased use of the Internet in job-hunting was another factor that enabled firms like Nomura to shift to an open-hiring system.

“In the past, there was no other reliable way (apart from the recruiter system) to effectively secure college students seeking jobs,” Noda said.

But firms these days can establish contact with more diverse and larger numbers of students regardless of university affiliation by posting and updating job information on the Internet, Noda said.

Once the hiring-season agreement was abolished, firms maintaining the recruiter system came to be seen as behind the times.

But instead of dying out, the recruiter system has simply remained, according to many experts and college students.

Takahashi, who has years of experience as a hiring consultant offering training courses to firms’ recruiters, said large firms now need recruiters for a different reason.

“Major companies are swamped with applications and thus need recruiters to screen candidates more carefully,” he said. The removal of recruiting restrictions and the increased use of the Internet have resulted in an onslaught of applications, with well-known companies getting from 50,000 to 100,000.

Using the copy-and-paste function and a couple of mouse clicks, students with Internet access can quickly and easily fill out and send employment applications in bulk. Many students therefore indiscriminately send out as many applications as possible to get a provisional employment notice from a firm.

But as companies cut back on hiring amid the economic slump, the torrent of applications means big-name firms are rejecting more applicants than ever, Takahashi said.

Faced with so many potential employees, these firms are again falling back on personal connections at prestigious colleges, combining the open-entry system with the recruiter system to come up with a program in which younger employees contact students at a certain stage of the screening process, Takahashi said.

“One day a young employee (of a major company) who was a graduate of my university called me to ask if I was interested in applying,” said a Keio University student who finished his job hunt in late April. The student, who asked not to be named, said he thought the caller was a recruiter. He is one of many students at well-known universities who said they were contacted by the same company.

A spokesman for the firm, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, admitted that company employees have contacted students of their alma maters. However, he denied that his firm utilized the recruiter system.

“What we are doing is meeting the demands of students by providing them with enough company information to deepen their understanding,” he said, emphasizing that his company’s recruiting activities are based on an “open and fair” policy. Employees are never selected based on educational background alone, he said.

The abolition of the employment agreement has led to mismatches between job hunters and employers, as students do not have enough time to consider what their career goals are before deciding which firm to join, the spokesman said.

Corporate cultures differ by firm, he said, arguing that employees who establish personal contacts with students from similar academic backgrounds help prevent mismatches.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 32 percent of university graduates who joined companies in 1998 had left their firms within three years.

“We don’t want them (new graduates) to leave the company in such a short period of time,” the spokesman said.

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