Commentary / Japan

Don't blame schools for worker shortages

by Walt Gardner

Special To The Japan Times

Employers in Japan and the United States say they can’t find enough workers to fill existing job openings. They are quick to lay the blame on the failure of schools to teach students the knowledge and skills that allow them to become productive members of the workforce. But the complaint does not stand up to scrutiny.

Scapegoating schools actually is a familiar tactic. In 1983, for example, the U.S. issued the “A Nation at Risk” report that maintained “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

The hyperbole made headlines, but the reality is far different. The real culprits are employers themselves, according to Peter Cappelli, professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.” There is no such thing as a perfect fit between applicants and job requirements. That’s why training programs exist in the first place.

Contrary to popular belief, the demand for workers is not limited to the high-tech sector. Builders in the U.S. say they are hard pressed to find enough carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other skilled craftsmen. In Japan, thousands of jobs ranging from those in ramen shops to auto-parts factories go unfilled. Yet companies in both countries refuse to take responsibility for their role, denying that low wages are the cause of the shortfall. Instead, they demand that the rules for the issuance of visas be eased as a way of reducing labor costs, knowing that foreign workers will accept lower salaries and benefits.

In the U.S., companies apply for H-1B visas with specific candidates in mind. The visas are initially approved for three years for those with at least a bachelor’s degree. Last year, the 85,000 cap (65,000 for those with bachelor’s degrees plus 20,000 for those with master’s degrees) was surpassed about a week after the window was open, leading companies to ask Congress to raise what they consider to be an arbitrary and antiquated limit.

By manufacturing a hiring crisis, companies create pressure for passage of more laws favorable to their bottom lines. They do so even though reports from the Center for Investigative Reporting, the New England Public Policy Center for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and the Economic Policy Institute have revealed fraud and abuse problems with the H-1B program, whose loopholes have been ruthlessly exploited to slash payrolls.

Companies know the law does not require them to first recruit American workers before casting their net overseas. Giving the government more authority to investigate allegations of fraud and adding protections for H-1B workers would be a step in the right direction, but such changes face an uphill battle.

The desperation to find qualified workers is even more acute in Japan because of a dramatically aging population. This is seen in the number of visas issued to foreigners. In 2014, the number of legal foreign workers in Japan rose to some 788,000, an increase of 15 percent in just two years, or about 1.4 percent of the legal workforce, according to the labor ministry.

The data may have played a role in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to abolish university humanities and social science departments. But he forgets that schools do not exist solely to prepare students for the immediate needs of the workplace. Even if they were redesigned to suit him, experience has shown that there would still be mismatches between what students have learned in school and what they need to succeed on the job.

Abe’s announced stance on education signals that the solution to Japan’s alleged worker shortage will be political rather than economic. In a country with an historically homogeneous population, that’s bound to create fierce pushback against opening the doors to even more foreign workers.

Walt Gardner taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years.