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Given the strength of his degree, master’s student Han Jae-kyeng didn’t think securing a job offer would be so hard — at least not until the virus crisis hit.

“I think the coronavirus has had a significant impact on foreign students,” said the aspiring plant engineer from South Korea, who is hoping to work here in Japan after graduating next spring.

But recently while job hunting Han has faced unexpected difficulties; a rejection after the final interview from one company and, from another, the last-minute postponement of a job interview.

The failure at the final interview, even though the selection process had seemed to go along well, made him and his career advisors wonder whether the coronavirus was affecting the company’s hiring plans in some way. The company did not give a reason for the rejection.

Before the health crisis, many Japanese firms had been looking to attract more foreign workers because the graying country is facing severe labor shortages. And companies desperate for talent expanding their recruiting activities to overseas colleges was not so rare.

However, as the COVID-19 outbreak continues to take a serious toll on the Japanese economy, Han and other foreign students hoping to find jobs here now fear they will be the first to miss out.

Some experts have echoed those fears, suggesting that if the crisis lasts long enough to inflict more damage on small and midsize enterprises, foreign students are likely to find themselves in a tough spot, as those tend to be the firms where they find work.

In addition to the language and cultural differences, Han thinks that the ongoing pandemic may have made the recruitment of international students “even riskier” because of the perceived possibility they might flee back home.

“I don’t want to blame the coronavirus,” said Han, who speaks fluent Japanese.

But “it may be natural for companies to hire Japanese students, rather than ‘risky’ foreign students.”

Morgan Thweatt, a student from the U.S. who is studying at Hitotsubashi University, acknowledges that “unemployment affects everyone” in Japan, but also feels she has “a bit more worry” as a foreign student.

Thweatt, who wants to become a recruitment consultant here, agrees with Han that the COVID-19 factor makes international students seem like “less certain of a bet.” Even without the virus, Thweatt feels companies tend to question foreign students’ commitment to stay in Japan for the long haul. And many of her foreign peers did return home suddenly because of the virus.

Other students have been shaken by reports that some companies revoked job offers due to the business downturn.

A student from Vietnam at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Oita Prefecture said she wondered if “the number of employees getting recruited is getting lower.”

For students graduating from university next spring Japan’s job-hunting season officially begins in March, with job fairs being held nationwide. While some companies, especially large ones, have already completed hiring by now, many others are still going through the process.

Japanese college students wear masks during visits to companies in Tokyo on March 1, as the year's job-hunting season officially began in Japan amid the ongoing spread of COVID-19. | KYODO
Japanese college students wear masks during visits to companies in Tokyo on March 1, as the year’s job-hunting season officially began in Japan amid the ongoing spread of COVID-19. | KYODO

To relieve job-hunting anxiety among foreign students, some recruiting firms are offering counseling and remote job fairs.

Tokyo-based Fourth Valley Concierge Corp. is providing an online hotline in eight languages through April 30. According to the firm, inquiries from students have included questions about the virus’s impact on recruiting schedules, visas and openings.

On April 18, Tokyo-based staffing agency Pasona Inc. also held an online job fair that brought together nine companies and saw 375 foreign students taking part.

Frequently asked coronavirus-related questions from participants during company seminars have included queries about whether the need to hire new graduates and foreign job seekers would decline, said Lee Yeon-kyung, deputy general manager at Pasona.

A recent survey conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun and Nippon Television Network Corp. on 100 major companies between late March to early April presents a bleak outlook for prospective new graduates due to start working in the spring of 2021.

Twenty-nine companies, or nearly 30 percent, said they would reduce the number of new graduates they hire compared to the previous year — almost twice the 15 firms who said that in the 2019 survey.

Only nine companies said they would hire more, significantly less than the 23 who answered likewise in the previous survey.

A Yomiuri Shimbun article on the survey published Monday suggested that the companies’ scaled-back employment plans have resulted from economic uncertainty caused by trade friction between the U.S. and China, as well as the consumption tax increase to 10 percent last year. As the world economy is rapidly slowing due to the pandemic, “the employment situation could worsen further,” the article said.

Yohei Shibasaki, founder and CEO of Fourth Valley Concierge, said that new graduates had topped hiring priorities even during the global financial crisis triggered by the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers.

But since the current health crisis, if it persists, is expected to surpass the impact of the so-called Lehman shock, it would “dampen the hiring of job seekers of all stripes” to a varying degree, he said.

Those who are planning to join small to midsize companies are expected to be in a more precarious position.

Around 60 percent of foreign students who switched their residency to working status in 2018 joined companies with fewer than 300 employees, according to the Immigration Services Agency.

Given that the pandemic is hitting those companies harder, and that they tend to have late hiring schedules, “the impact (for non-Japanese students) is big” if the coronavirus crisis drags on, Shibasaki said.

But he highlighted the importance of having foreign workers within the nation’s shrinking labor force in the long run.

“It is very important for us to motivate foreign nationals who chose to stay in Japan, to remain — and hang on — in this country,” he said.

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