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The nation’s college graduates get one shot at their dream job. That’s it. And this year, they might not even get that.

Big companies have long preferred to hire and train newly minted college grads right out of school. About 70 percent of open jobs went to new college grads in 2018, and once hired, they stay: one in four Japanese workers has been in his job for more than 20 years. In the United States, only one in 10 employees has that kind of tenure.

Now, with companies cutting back on hiring plans for 2021, soon-to-be college graduates worry they’re missing their chance. There are 122,000 fewer openings anticipated this year compared to last, bringing the jobs-per-applicant ratio to its lowest since 2014.

“Japan’s recruitment system is hiring based on potential, not what they can immediately do,” said Zen Masumoto, who leads the research and editing division at Recruit Career Co., a recruitment services company. “In the U.S. and other countries, it’s more about hiring based on skills and experience.”

Rising graduates aren’t oblivious. They’re beginning to wonder if they don’t get a job now, will they ever?

“I understand it’s no one’s fault,” said Kazuya Kozaki, a senior economics major at Doshisha University in Kyoto. “But I only have one chance as a fresh graduate hire.” Companies in his target industry — entertainment — have announced job cuts, so Kozaki switched his focus to finance firms.

History suggests it’s a reasonable concern: Japanese companies sharply cut back on entry-level hiring in the late 1990s when the country faced financial crisis. Among the era’s college graduates, now in their 30s and 40s, some 35 percent of men and 9.6 percent of women have yet to find full-time employment, according to the Internal Affairs Ministry.

The lasting consequences of that “employment ice age” have prompted calls for more job mobility. Economists say a less rigid career progression would be better for the country’s economy, which grew just 8.8 percent over the past 10 years before the pandemic broke. It also adds flexibility for hiring companies and ambitious employees. “Having a hiring system where companies hire throughout the year is beneficial for both the employer as well as those being recruited,” said Atsushi Takeda, chief economist at Itochu Corp.

Companies are also trying to inspire more movement. Sony Corp. replaced its seniority-based system with a merit-based one in fiscal year 2015. Hitachi Ltd. also ended its traditional salary system for managers in 2014 to compete in the global market and diversify talent.

Still, hiring en masse is more cost-effective, Takeda said. There’s also a risk for companies that break the cycle. Almost 45 percent of workers have more than 10 years of job tenure, according to the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training. Without midcareer professionals looking to move, companies worry they’ll lose out on the best applicants.

Because companies see new hires as a long-term investment, they begin recruiting students a full year before graduation. From as early as winter to early summer, students put the classic dark ‘recruiting’ suit and travel to Tokyo and other big cities to attend mandatory information sessions and interviews. They take aptitude tests, fill out application forms and submit resumes.

Some employers begin sending out job offers from the beginning of the spring recruiting season through the summer. By winter, students who don’t have an offer begin to worry.

“Most students don’t think about joining a Japanese company as a midcareer,” said Kai Otomo, a fourth-year student at Keio University in Tokyo, who aspires to work in the sports business industry. If he doesn’t get an offer, he said, he might go to graduate school, or he could extend graduation by a year, becoming a “recruitment ronin.”

So far, some of the deepest hiring cuts have come from the hardest-hit industries. Japan Airlines Co., All Nippon Airways Co., and the travel agency HIS Co. have canceled plans to hire 2021 graduates. Other planned reductions are smaller.

Mizuho Financial Group Inc., the country’s third-largest lender, said it will hire about 510 new graduates in April, down about 7.3 percent compared with the class of 2020. “Our hiring strategy is based around long-term business planning,” the company said. “Not short-term impacts caused by the virus.”

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