Each year, the cherry blossoms of April are accompanied by the nervous march of over 400,000 fresh-faced graduates on their way to their new jobs.

Many of these new graduates, or “shin-sotsu,” will have gone through more than 18 months of job hunting, called “shushoku-katsudo,” or “shu-katsu” for short, to start their careers as soon as they graduate.

University students start job hunting as early as their junior year and attend related events organized by companies and the recruitment industry.

Shu-katsu is effective, with 96.9 percent of new graduates who were job-hunting finding work by the time they graduated from their universities last April, according to a survey by the education and labor ministries.

How does the job hunting process go?

Officially, companies say they begin the process for university juniors in October, typically on Oct. 1, as directed by a charter drawn up by the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren). That is the date when companies give university seniors “naitei” (informal promise of employment) and hold naitei ceremonies for their employees-to-be.

Companies are not supposed to advertise for recruitment of university juniors until then, according to the nonbinding agreement by companies and Keidanren.

But for some students, job hunting starts even earlier, especially with summer internships recently becoming popular, according to Hitomi Okazaki, editor in chief at Recruit Co., Ltd.

After Oct. 1, students attend introduction seminars at companies, explanatory sessions at their universities’ career guidance departments and fill in so-called entry sheets to send to each firm either directly or through recruitment information Web sites, including Recruit’s Rikunabi, which will place recruitment advertisements for 9,500 companies this April. Firms can also search for ideal candidates through such Web sites.

Students are then invited to examinations and interviews, and the majority of successful applicants receive notice that they are likely to be given naitei, a process called “nai-naitei,” by the end of their university junior year or start of their senior year.

In October, they are invited to a naitei ceremony by the companies. By Oct. 1 last year, nearly 70 percent of those who were looking to start work after graduation this spring had already received an offer, according to a survey by the education and labor ministries.

Why does Japan have such a unified shu-katsu system?

Because companies greatly prefer new graduates to those who spend a year or more looking for jobs or those looking to change positions, according to Recruit’s Okazaki.

“The Japanese have always thought highly of academic records, so getting recruits straight from university education is appealing,” she explained.

“By employing new graduates, companies can train good people cheaply at the same time,” she added.

When the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s and the seniority wage system became less prominent, companies also started to recruit at other times of the year.

“But students are still aware that companies prefer new graduates. They may say they want to travel the world before settling into a job, but they know that job seekers who are not fresh out of education can be disadvantaged in aspects such as salary,” Okazaki said.

If students start job hunting so early while they are still in education, surely there is friction between universities and companies?

Yes, although in the current economic climate, things may change.

After World War II, there was growing competition among firms to secure desirable recruits early, and universities complained that this was interfering with the students’ education. To prevent this, a committee consisting of universities, Keidanren, and the then Labor and Education ministries established an employment agreement in 1953.

But some companies continued to break the code, and the agreement was repeatedly terminated and restarted. Since it was last abolished in 1997, Keidanren has published charters every year that request companies to voluntarily refrain from starting their recruitment procedure early.

“Over the last few years, universities have again been increasingly critical of how early job hunting starts, especially in cases where firms pretend to set up summer internships but are in reality already assessing students,” Keidanren executive Mitsuru Hirata said. “But with jobs becoming harder to find in the current recession, the universities’ attitude may change,” he added.

What kind of support is there for those hunting for jobs?

In addition to events run by companies and recruitment firms, universities invite their alumni to their campuses to run mock interviews and professional career consultants give students advice. There are also prominent shu-katsu guidebook sections in bookstores.

“Many people buy diaries and personal computers with the sole purpose of preparing for job hunting to keep track of their appointments,” said Okazaki. “Recently, some are even buying an extra cell phone just for calls related to job hunting. Parents give one to their daughters to prevent calls from unknown numbers coming to private cell phones,” she added.

With the recession, is it becoming more difficult for new graduates to secure jobs?

Yes, to an extent.

By last November, 87 companies had canceled 331 informal promises of employment, of which 302 involved university students, according to a survey by the labor ministry.

“Usually, companies are able to predict economic downturns, but this time the changes have been extreme and sudden. Companies that canceled informal promises were genuinely thinking the future was bright, but within months things really changed,” Okazaki said.

According to a survey conducted by Recruit in December, 15.7 percent of companies said they are looking to reduce recruitment of new graduates, up by nearly 9 percentage points from the previous year.

On the other hand, over half of the companies said they are not looking to alter their plans for new graduate recruitment in 2010, only 5 percentage points lower than the previous year.

“Compared with temp or part-time workers, new graduates are less affected by economic changes,” Okazaki explained. “Companies still see them as a valuable investment for the future.”

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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