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Like many college students who gathered at a Tokyo forum earlier this month, Tomoe Yoshida believes becoming an intern at a company will help her find out what career she wants to pursue.

“I am interested in so many things and still don’t know what kind of job is best for me,” the 21-year-old said while flipping through the leaflets of firms participating in the internship forum.

For university juniors, the job hunt starts around November, but many students feel they can get a clear advantage if they do a summer internship.

“Friends who finished job-hunting last year told me they had a very hard time,” Yoshida said, and they advised her to get an early start if she wants to secure a job offer.

Yoshida is among the growing number of college students who are eager to become business interns during the upcoming summer holiday to gain some work experience.

Shinka Co., the organizer of the two-day 2003 Internship Forum held at Tokyo Big Sight in Koto Ward, said the event drew some 2,000 students, and the 27 firms from various industries participating in the fair vied for the attention of as many students as possible.

Internship programs have become more popular in recent years.

When the research institute Japan Productivity Center for Socioeconomic Development surveyed 303 firms in 2002, it found that 40.3 percent of the respondents — up from 9 percent in 1998 — have introduced internship programs. The firms are all listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange

Corporate internships have been around for nearly a century in the West, particularly in the United States. But only in recent years have Japanese businesses and college students resorted to such programs.

Experts say the biggest factor behind the trend is the nation’s shrinking job market and the fact that both students and companies can benefit from internship programs.

“Because companies have cut back on hiring new graduates, students feel that business internships would better prepare them for the job hunt,” said Hideo Naruoka of Shinka, a consulting firm specializing in job-hunting.

Internship programs vary from company to company, but they can roughly be categorized into two types: one that lets students experience the actual job and one that gives them a research assignment on a specific theme, Naruoka said.

In most cases, interns are not paid and the duration of each program ranges from a week to a month.

Many firms admit that accepting interns usually ends up increasing the workload of their employees, but they still believe can benefit from the programs.

Inax Corp., a leading manufacturer of interior and exterior tiles, began an internship program last summer with 15 students. The firm received about 400 applications via the Internet for the first year.

By accepting interns, Inax aims to improve its corporate image with students by word of mouth. At the same time, the firm hopes to find future employees among the interns, though none in last year’s program was hired this year.

Toshiharu Nagaya of Inax’s personnel section said internship programs can help students clarify their career goals and thus avoid a mismatch between their expectations and that of their potential employers.

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.

“Many students decide to apply to a company based only on an image they have of the firm, without truly understanding the business,” Nagaya said.

Inax’s internship program is thus designed to help students get a better idea of what kind of job they are really looking for.

This year, the company plans to take on 20 interns for its three-week program. During the first week, students will be required to assess themselves and spell out to the firm’s employees what they can do for the company.

Based on their presentation, students will then be assigned to one of eight departments to see how they can put their plans into practice. They will then make a final presentation on their output.

Asahi Kasei Corp., one of the first Japanese companies to offer an internship program, came to the realization in the mid-1990s that Japanese students have an unclear vision about their career goals.

The nation’s leading chemical firm introduced an internship program in 1997 after its personnel staff went to the United States the previous year to take part in job fairs, hold seminars at universities and speak to students.

“We were stunned by the huge difference between American students and Japanese students,” said Akihiro Sato of the firm’s personnel section.

Japanese students could only relate to what they did in their studies, club activities and part-time jobs, but nothing beyond that point, whereas American job seekers they met on the trip had an in-depth perspective of how they could contribute to their employer.

Sato said Asahi Kasei came to realize that the internship experience can help students draw a better picture of their future, and decided to provide Japanese students with such opportunities.

The lack of vocational education in Japan has also created an environment in which students grow up without thinking about their future profession, he added.

Kiichi Toko, chief researcher at Japan Productivity Center for Socioeconomic Development, said the increasing popularity of internship programs reflects the changes in Japan’s conventional employment situation.

“Companies can no longer spare the time and money to provide freshmen with long-term training,” which used to be common practice under Japan’s lifetime employment system, Toko said.

In the past, when firms routinely engaged in mass hiring of new graduates and spent years on vocational training, they were tolerant toward inexperience, he said.

“But today’s prolonged economic slump is forcing firms to become much more selective in screening job seekers,” Toko said, noting companies nowadays want to hire only a few new graduates, and only those with outstanding ability.

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