To survive the prolonged recession, a growing number of companies have adopted systems to encourage employees to attain professional or specialist qualifications, hoping the investment will motivate them and that the newfound expertise will help develop new products or business expansion.

Tomoko Kawada, 37, of Tamanoi Vinegar Co., a food maker in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, has benefitted from the so-called Future System. In 2009, after she had worked there 11 years, she took a year off to study at a vocational school and obtain a cooking license.

Now she is in charge of devising original recipes that use vinegar and publicizing them on the company’s website.

Employees aiming for any of six specialist qualifications, such as licenses for cooks, doctors, lawyers and tax accountants, are interviewed and assessed to see if such skills will enhance their careers. For those selected, the company pays for the study and licensing fees, as well as a full salary during the leave of absence.

Another successful candidate, a 33-year-old male employee who joined Tamanoi in 2004, was picked for the medical course and spent four years studying at a national university, passing the 2010 national exam for medical practitioners on the first try. Currently an intern at a hospital, the company hopes he can make use of the expertise to provide professional advice in related business operations as well as health consultations for its staff.

School fees shouldered by the company totaled some ¥2 million in Kawada’s case, and ¥2.5 million in the case of the male employee.

Although only a handful have been chosen under the system, Eri Terasawa, a section chief in the Tamanoi president’s office, said the workers “with specialized expertise can discover values that we fail to notice and they show us the path for the company to survive.”

According to a survey in 2011 by the Institute of Labor Administration, a Tokyo-based research agency, 77 percent of about 230 companies that provided valid response had some kind of support system for employees to obtain specialized qualifications. This was slightly up from 74 percent in the previous survey conducted in 2004.

In most cases, firms subsidize expenses such as examination fees. Some companies also pay bonuses or special allowances to staff members who obtain certain licenses or qualifications.

The institute noted that amid the tough business environment since the global financial crisis that struck around late 2008, companies have come to expect an even higher degree of self-reliance and professionalism from employees.

At the same time, workers themselves have also become ever more eager to master specialized techniques and know-how given this era of uncertainty, according to the institute.

Meanwhile, some companies have also set up their own in-house qualification systems. Supermarket chain operator Aeon Co., for example, has about 20 kinds of in-house qualifications ranging from specializing in cutting and trimming fresh fish to expertise in bicycles.

Hajime Ozawa, the 41-year-old manager of an Aeon group bicycle shop in the city of Chiba, is one such Aeon Cycle Adviser. When he first joined the company, Ozawa was assigned to the food department, but he decided to obtain the in-house qualification in 2011 as he wanted to make the most of his bike-riding hobby at work.

“Equipped with the technical expertise, I feel more confident and also win customers’ trust,” Ozawa said. “It makes the job a lot more enjoyable.”

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