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Science students are eschewing traditional high-powered employers such as Sony Corp. and Panasonic Corp. to help make ice cream and yogurt.

They are applying to dairies. That says quite a bit about the current state of Japan and — some say — its future.

Sony, the Walkman inventor that once topped the rankings among the most-coveted jobs for graduating science majors, may drop further in popularity after sinking to fourth place from second in a survey this year of science students headed for the job market in April, said Takuya Kurita, a researcher at Tokyo-based Mynavi Corp., which operates job-hunting websites.

Sony, trying to end four years of losses, is hiring fewer recruits than it has in 23 years.

“I’ve read about their huge losses in the newspaper,” Asuka Okamoto, a graduate physics student at Waseda University in Tokyo, said of the once-vaunted electronics makers. “I’d rather work somewhere else if workers seem worried at those companies.”

As the biggest companies kick off their annual campus recruitment drives this month, science students are increasingly favoring companies like dairy firm Meiji Holdings Co.

For the once-dominant consumer electronics makers, a loss of market share to Samsung Electronics Co. and Apple Inc. also means they’re losing the future engineers and scientists needed to come up with the hit products needed to revive them.

“The gap between Japanese companies and Samsung, LG, and Chinese or Taiwanese competitors may only widen if the Japanese can’t hire excellent young talent,” said Yoshihisa Toyosaki, an analyst at Architect Grand Design, an electronics research and consulting company in Tokyo. “New products can only be born from new brains.”

Two of the three most popular employers for science students entering the job market next year are food manufacturers, according to Mynavi, which collected data from 16,451 students in the three months ended February.

Meiji topped the rankings, followed by Toshiba Corp., which makes products ranging from personal computers to nuclear reactors. Kagome Co., a maker of sauces and condiments, was third.

“Japan’s top manufacturers are being replaced by food makers in the rankings because the food business is considered stable,” Mynavi’s Kurita said.

Science students, he said, “care about building a career at a stable company where they can work as researchers for a long time.”

The unprofitable electronics makers are seen as volatile, said Yoshihide Suzuki, an administrative director at the career center at Waseda, a 130-year-old private school where Sony cofounder Masaru Ibuka studied engineering in the 1930s.

That has made them less attractive to young job seekers whose priorities include stability, he said.

Meiji shares have gained 14 percent this year, and its net income more than doubled to ¥5.2 billion in the six months ended Sept. 30 from a year earlier, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Kagome has risen 7.9 percent as its net income gained 88 percent to ¥5.7 billion in the same period.

Meiji, which traces its history to 1906, has been profitable since its creation by a 2009 merger. The company has expanded its workforce by 8 percent since 2010, according to Bloomberg data.

The company is receiving a “very large number of applicants” this season, when many students accept job offers from large companies six months before graduating, Meiji spokeswoman Emiko Kurokawa, said without giving details.

The maker of Aya ice cream and Bulgaria Yogurt is hiring engineers for its plants and scientists for research and development. The company also makes pharmaceuticals, veterinary drugs and agricultural chemicals.

Sony, Panasonic and Sharp Corp. are recruiting fewer young people as they shrink their workforces. The three companies have announced a total of more than 29,800 job cuts for the year ending March 31 as they try to recover from ¥1.6 trillion in combined net losses last fiscal year.

Sony, which used to hire as many as 1,000 people from universities each year, plans to give jobs to just 180 in April, said spokesman George Boyd. That’s down 35 percent from a year earlier and the lowest since 1990, he said. The number of engineers being hired will drop to 150 from 205 this year.

Sony, which posted a ¥457 billion loss for the year ended March 31, was the most popular destination for science students for 10 straight years until 2003, according to Mynavi.

“Students don’t seem to believe entering Sony will secure anything for their lives,” said Waseda’s Suzuki.

Sony continues to hold recruiting events at universities and elsewhere and offers students opportunities to visit development sites and talk to company engineers, Boyd said.

Panasonic plans to hire 350 people from universities next year, compared with 1,400 in 1992, said spokeswoman Chieko Gyobu.

The company, which posted a ¥772 billion loss last fiscal year, tumbled to 15th in Mynavi’s latest rankings, released in March, from the No. 1 spot a year earlier.

Panasonic is holding seminars on campuses and at its own offices “to secure applications from talented students” and is also strengthening its design, development and marketing operations overseas, Gyobu said.

“Although it’s true we’re facing difficulties after a big loss, we’re not going to continue declining,” Panasonic Vice Chairman Masayuki Matsushita said in a Nov. 26 interview. “Joining us now can actually be an opportunity to succeed.”

Sharp, which posted a ¥376 billion loss last fiscal year, plans to hire 130 workers compared with 240 last year, spokeswoman Miyuki Nakayama said.

Sharp, which fell to 23rd from 16th in Mynavi’s latest ranking, is also recruiting on campuses, Nakayama said.

Samsung, the world’s biggest maker of TVs and mobile phones, doesn’t disclose its hiring practices. Samsung Group, its parent company, plans to hire 9,000 university grads this year, according to a Feb. 29 statement.

Most students in Japan start job hunting Dec. 1, or about 16 months prior to graduation. Companies can start contacting students that day under guidelines issued by the influential Keidanren business lobby.

Of university graduates who sought to start working in April this year, 93.6 percent found an employer, up from 91 percent a year earlier, the labor ministry said May 15.

The jobless rate fell to 4.2 percent in October from 4.4 percent a year earlier. That’s lower than the 7.7 percent rate in the U.S. and 6.9 percent in Germany. Unemployment was 3 percent in South Korea, and the rate for China in September was 4.1 percent.

Sony paid a salary of ¥242,500 a month for new recruits who obtained a master’s degree in 2012, and ¥210,000 for those with a bachelor’s degree, according to the company’s website. Panasonic and Sharp each paid ¥228,500 for new hires who got a master’s degree that year, according to the companies.

Meiji’s pharmaceuticals unit paid ¥240,000 for recruits with a master’s degree this year, while Toyota Motor Corp. paid ¥225,000, according to the companies’ websites.

Yuki Okuyama, a 23-year-old physics student at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, said he is interested in working with chipmaking equipment or infrastructure.

“I’ll probably check consumer electronics makers as well, though they seem to be troubled,” he said. Sony, Panasonic and Sharp “relied on a limited area of businesses and stumbled,” he said. “It would have been better if they had diversified.”

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