Internships in Japan have really taken off in recent years, and are increasingly becoming diverse in the content and opportunities offered.

According to a 2018 survey by Recruit, 68.1 percent of Japanese companies offered internships in fiscal 2017, up 8.7 percentage points. Moreover, 73.7 percent of the firms surveyed were expecting to offer internships in fiscal 2018.

Some 25.6 percent of the companies specifically sought to use the internships as a way to identify potential future employees, while 47.5 percent said that that was not the explicit purpose of the internship per se but that in the end the internship led to some participants being hired. Furthermore, 73.6 percent of the companies hired graduating students who participated in internships sponsored by the company.

This data suggests that internships provide a great way for companies to recruit talent.

Regarding student participation, among students graduating in March 2018, Recruit found that 55.2 percent had participated in internships, an increase of 11.5 points over the previous year. Of these, more than 51 percent of the participants either entered the company at which they interned at or joined a company in the same field (48.2 percent went into a company in a completely different field).

For reference purposes, approximately 97 percent of American companies offer internships, and some 80 percent of post-secondary education students participate in them.

According to the same survey, in which multiple answers were permitted, students graduating in 2018 primarily chose internships to learn about the work (67.0 percent) or the industry (65.6 percent), with 37.3 percent hoping to learn more about the company’s products and services and 36.3 percent about the company itself.

However, in most of the above cases the internships were with large organizations of between 300 to 5,000 employees. Furthermore, the length of internships tends to be very short — more than half are simply for one day, according to the same report. In other words, they are little more than spending the day as special visitors or guests at the company where they are given tours, the chance to speak with current employees and/or management, and to participate in mock (or real) assignments.

When I co-directed the internship program for Osaka University’s School of International Public Policy, many of the students had difficulty finding internships that were more than the above situation, which were clearly meant for the company’s benefit (to identify promising recruits) than for the medium- to long-term educational benefit of the students. Indeed, students had to string together several such internships to meet the minimum requirements for the course.

Experiencing a large company or organization in a highly superficial and choreographed manner is not the best way to choose a future career or place of employment. Arguably, it is not good for the company, either, as an increasing number of new hires today have tended to quit after a short time, unlike their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

From the perspective of educational experience as well as for making a better fit all around, I would like to recommend here that small and medium-size firms become more involved in offering internships.

In particular, I would like to see those smaller enterprises that do not have a successor to continue the company offer not only internships but the chance to take over the company in the future.

For a variety of reasons, smaller companies tend to be the ones least offering such opportunities, but they may actually be the ones that can benefit the most. Running an internship and mentoring young people is indeed challenging but also very rewarding.

Every year, thousands of small and medium-size enterprises close or file for bankruptcy. In 2019, some 8,383 businesses failed, up almost 2 percent. It is likely that the rise in the consumption tax to 10 percent had something to do with this. It is very probable that with the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, which has ravaged the domestic and international economies, will cause many thousands of more businesses to go under.

A significant number of companies that have gone bankrupt do so due to a lack of successor to take over the firm. In one small town I previously lived in and still maintain ties to, more than half (18) of the 30 companies that withdrew from the local chamber of commerce in fiscal 2019 lacked a successor and/or did not see any hope in continuing.

Anecdotally, companies that turn over day-to-day decision-making at an early point to the next generation seem to have greater chances to survive and prosper. The younger generation will likely be familiar with the latest technology and trends and have had the most recent experience with higher or advanced education.

They may also be the most interdisciplinary in their thinking, and can blend different industries and products, or take the best from the old and the new. Having traveled to every prefecture in Japan and seen these enterprises in action, I feel confident in making this statement.

In the same way, students today may want to consider interning at smaller firms, as they will be able to make their voices heard more quickly as the hierarchy is greatly reduced or even nonexistent. These interns, representing the next generation or younger market, may be asked to head or launch a project or to suggest improvements on current designs or products.

The longer they remain in their internship, the greater the trust that may develop between the owner or founder of the firm and themselves. Rather than being treated as one of many, as they would in a large company, he or she may become the future savior of the firm in this smaller setting.

There is another reason that young people may want to look to these smaller firms: the new reality. The COVID-19 outbreak and the economic disruption has led to the cancellation of job offers for those who were about to graduate, the postponement of job fairs and interviews for future graduates and the postponement or outright cancellation of some internships.

This is unfortunate, but it may present an opportunity for young people to intern at small companies, locally to where they live or in their hometowns, even if they have to utilize the increasingly popular telework format, something which the more technology-savvy young people better understand.

Robert D. Eldridge is a former tenured associate professor at Osaka University and the author of the forthcoming "University Reform and Japan’s Educational Rebirth" (in Japanese, from Koyo Shobo Press).

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