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With its aging workforce, Japan is facing a severe labor shortage in the construction and civil engineering industry. But a painting company in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, may have some answers.

Fumika Kono, 22, is a rookie construction site supervisor at the company, Nagaoka Tosoten K.K. She was recently assigned to supervise a two-month operation at a condominium construction site — her first full assignment. Her duties range from receiving materials to monitoring the pace of progress to checking the finished work.

She says that taking a job in the construction industry was “natural” because she has “liked to create things” ever since she was a child.

Kono was hired by Nagaoka Tosoten after graduating from a local technical college, but she doesn’t hesitate to issue orders even to experienced painting workers.

“I want to obtain higher credentials as early as possible by accumulating work-site experience,” she says.

Troubled by its low retention rate among young workers, Nagaoka Tosoten began introducing programs 16 years ago designed to support both male and female workers in the child-raising years, such as allowing them to take paid leaves of absence. The programs have led the company to hire female technical workers, a rare occurrence in the industry.

In another program, Nagaoka Tosoten has standardized know-how so an employee can readily take over work when another worker takes a leave of absence.

“The efficiency of work has improved along with the rise in the ratio of workers taking paid holidays,” said Sumiko Koshino, the company’s managing director.

“Company managers are responsible for creating a work environment where employees, whether they are men or women, can exercise their abilities,” Koshino said.

According to a study by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, women accounted for an average of 14.2 percent of construction company employees in 2013, compared with 29.5 percent in the manufacturing industry.

The construction labor shortage has grown so acute that there have been work delays and unsuccessful tenders for public works projects.

Concerned about how this could affect construction work for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, the government and the industry are trying to make construction work more attractive to women. For example, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe invited female construction workers to talk with him in his office, while the industry announced a hiring target for female workers.

Analysts, however, question the effectiveness of such approaches.

Japan Inc. has based its competitiveness on an employment system focused on full-time male workers who don’t hesitate to work long hours.

The system has “confined women to household chores and child-rearing and prevented them from employment and career formation,” says Mika Ikemoto, a senior researcher at the Japan Research Institute.

Programs adopted by Nagaoka Tosoten to create a work environment friendly to both male and female employees with small children can offer a clue as to how Japan’s traditional employment system could be reformed.

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