National | Regional Voices: Hokkaido

Hokkaido scholarships for foreign care workers draw nationwide attention amid labor crunch

Hokkaido Shimbun

Three municipalities, including Higashikawa in Hokkaido’s Kamikawa subprefecture, and nursing care providers in the prefecture’s north introduced in April a scholarship program for non-Japanese attending welfare services schools to encourage them to take up jobs at local nursing homes.

The move has raised hopes that a foreign workforce could become a solution to the region’s struggles with a labor shortage in the nursing care sector.

Five other towns from the subprefectures of Kamikawa, Soya and Okhotsk had followed suit as of September, enabling nursing homes in those areas to make job offers to students from a vocational school in Higashikawa. Of them, 13 are now scheduled to fill vacant spots at facilities in each of those areas right after graduation.

Among these students is Nguyen Van Nam, 22. The first-year student at the two-year nursing care vocational school in Higashikawa is scheduled to join the staff at an intensive-care home for the elderly in the town of Aibetsu after his planned graduation in the spring of 2021.

In late October, Nguyen presented his skills during a practical lesson at school.

“I’m going to change your diaper now,” he said in Japanese to another student playing the role of a bed-ridden patient.

Under the program, Nguyen receives ¥2.5 million annually to cover his school expenses of roughly ¥1.2 million per year and most of his living expenses.

“I can study here thanks to this scholarship program,” Nguyen said.

Highly motivated, Nguyen added, “I want to start working as soon as I can to return the favor.”

The scholarship program was launched by a local council supporting the development of nurses, targeting non-Japanese in Hokkaido. The council comprises government representatives of the towns of Higashikawa, Takasu and Horoka, vocational schools, as well as operators of seven nursing care facilities in those towns.

Foreign students who graduate with special certification in nursing care from any of the vocational schools participating in the program and who find employment at one of nursing homes that are council members won’t need to return the money they receive.

Eighty percent of the expenses are covered using money from national taxes allocated to local governments. The remainder is handled by municipalities accepting foreign nursing care staff from among graduates of welfare services vocational schools, or by operators of such facilities hiring foreign staff.

A demographic analysis shows that in fiscal 2025, when the baby boomer generation will turn 75 or older, the manpower shortage in the nursing care sector in Hokkaido will reach 20,000. Such estimates signal that the already deepening labor shortage at nursing care facilities in Hokkaido will only intensify along with Japan’s population decline.

Operators of 10 facilities from the five towns and villages of Aibetsu, Hamatonbetsu, Esashi, Sarufutsu and Takinoue, have also joined the program.

A Hamatonbetsu municipal official explained the town’s decision to participate in the scholarship program, pointing to the “limits to operators’ ability to fill vacant spots at their facilities.”

“Local government support has become indispensable,” the official said.

The program has been drawing attention nationwide, with municipalities such as Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, and other governments outside Hokkaido flooding the council with queries.

To qualify for a scholarship, students need to pass the second-highest N2 level of the main Japanese-language proficiency test or have a language proficiency equivalent to that level.

Yoji Mizuno, 48, who heads Kejuen, an intensive-care facility for the elderly in Takinoue and who is planning to hire a Nepalese nursing care student, said; “I’m not worried about (the student’s) ability to communicate with our patients, judging from (their) very good Japanese skills.”

“I am hoping our novice worker will be able to guide other staff in the future,” Mizuno said.

Currently, 26 students from 10 countries and regions, including China, Taiwan and the Philippines, are attending the school in Higashikawa. Of them, 13, including Nguyen, have received job offers, and the other half are also expected to find employment in the region.

But operators from the eight areas that have decided to accept foreign nursing care school graduates won’t be able to ensure vacancies for non-Japanese who come to study in the coming years, as the operators might not meet the program’s specific working conditions.

To secure the manpower the region needs, the council is considering calling for community associations from 14 towns and cities — home to 35 facilities serving as supporting members on the council’s mailing list — to start offering scholarships.

The initiators also fear non-Japanese who have graduated from nursing care schools will relocate to other areas in Japan once they’re exempted from obligations to pay back the money they have received under the program. These concerns stem from other strengthened efforts to recruit nursing care personnel amid growing labor shortages across the nation.

Commenting on the situation in the region, Higashikawa Mayor Ichiro Matsuoka, who heads the council, stressed that “it’s important to have successful examples to find sustainable solutions to address the labor shortage issue in this region.”

This section features topics and issues from Hokkaido covered by the Hokkaido Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published on Nov. 10.