Japanese Education Today

Education and Employment


Human resource development has been indispensable to Japan's success in the international marketplace and continues to be a crucial element in the strength of the Japanese economy. It takes place within and beyond the school system in a variety of public and private settings.

The needs and preferences of employers exert strong influences on the education system. The dynamic relationship between education and the economy is reinforced at every turn by the interwoven policies and practices of government, education institutions, business, and industry. Effective school based employment services play a significant role in matching non-college bound graduates with available jobs.

Large companies* with lifetime employment policies account for approximately 27 percent of the work force and are major providers of a wide range of continuing education and training opportunities for their workers.[1] However, the majority of the nation's labor force, employed by small business or self-employed, does not benefit from these opportunities.

Work preparation within the school system

Awareness of the world of work begins early in Japanese education and affects all students throughout the period of compulsory schooling. Students keep their school clean, serve meals, and engage in a variety of other group activities which foster a commitment to cooperative behavior. What the schools emphasize are basic attitudes about functioning effectively in organizations and behaviors believed necessary for success in the Japanese world of work.

About 8 percent of the lower secondary school curriculum is devoted to industrial arts and homemaking. Students take 70 hours of industrial arts or homemaking a year in the 7th and 8th grades and 105 hours in the 9th grade. Formal vocational education does not begin until compulsory education is completed.

Five categories of educational institutions prepare non-university bound youth for entry into the labor market:

The fourth and fifth categories are less tightly controlled or influenced by Monbusho with respect to curriculum than the first and second. Most institutions in the last three categories are operated by private organizations.

Upper secondary schools. Within Japan's upper secondary school framework, both academic and vocational programs are available full-time, part-time, and by correspondence. Part-time and correspondence programs normally last 4 years. Vocational education is available both in comprehensive secondary schools and in separate vocational secondary schools. In both cases, vocational education courses are offered in the 11th and 12th grades.

In 1984, there were 4.9 million full-time and part-time students enrolled in upper secondary schools. Of this total, 97 percent were full-time and 3 percent part-time students. Of the full-time students, 72 percent were enrolled in the general or academic course while the remaining 28 percent were enrolled in vocational and other special courses (table 8).

All students at the high school level--whether in the academic or vocational curriculum--need a minimum of 80 credits to graduate. Students in the vocational track must obtain at least 30 credits in the vocational area. [2] The central feature of the high school vocational curriculum is that it is broad-based, not job-specific. It covers six areas: commercial, agricultural, technical/industrial home economics, fisheries, and health courses.

In 1984 about 27 percent of the female students were enrolled in vocational courses, the largest numbers in the commercial course (about 399,000 or 16.4 percent of all female students) and the home economics course (about 135,000 or 5.6 percent). About 31 percent of the male students were enrolled in vocational courses, the largest numbers in the technical course (about 449,000 or 18.2 percent) and the commercial course (about 165,000 or 6.7 percent).

Technical colleges (koto senmon gakko). Technical colleges were established beginning in 1962 to produce skilled technicians for industry. About 93 percent of them are public institutions. Students are admitted in the 10th grade after completing compulsory schooling. These colleges offer a 5- or 5 1/2-year program almost exclusively in engineering and merchant marine studies, mostly to male students. In 1985, 62 technical colleges enrolled approximately 48,000 students. No new technical colleges have been established since the mid-1970's. Total enrollment has been relatively stable for the past 15 years.

Special training schools (senshu gakko). This category of institutions was established in 1976 to help students develop abilities required for their vocation and daily life, and also to help improve their general education. Institutions in this category exist in two forms:

These institutions also offer continuing education courses open to anyone. Special training schools may be established by the national government, local government, or a private individual. Almost 90 percent are private.

They offer a wide range of opportunities for skill acquisition in the fields of engineering, agriculture, medical care, nursing, health, commerce, home economics, and culture/liberal arts. Many of these courses are closely linked to the student's meeting occupational qualifications and certification.

The number of special training institutions has grown rapidly. In 1985, 3,015 such schools had a total enrollment of 538,000. Approximately three-fourths of their students are enrolled at the postsecondary level. According to a 1981 survey conducted by the Japan Recruit Center, 65 percent of the 5,200 firms surveyed expressed a desire to recruit from these schools. The record to date indicates that they are filling an important need for both graduates and employers.

Miscellaneous schools (kakushu gakko). These institutions provide vocational or practical training in such areas as bookkeeping, typing, automotive repair, computer techniques, dressmaking, and cooking. Courses are offered at both upper secondary and postsecondary levels and vary greatly in length. In 1985 there were 4,300 miscellaneous schools, almost all private. They enrolled about 530,000 students, nearly half of them female.

Junior colleges. Junior colleges provide both general education and vocational education courses, although primarily for women who, as indicated earlier, make up 90 percent of the enrollment. More than one-third of the students are in general education courses-humanities, social science, and general culture. The single most heavily enrolled vocational field is home economics, basically homemaking, which enrolls about 27 percent of all students. Other vocational areas include teacher education, with about 22 percent of enrollments, and engineering, agriculture, and health, which together account for 10 percent of enrollments. Teachers trained in junior colleges find most of their employment at the preschool level.

Statistical summary. In 1984, more than 2.7 million students were enrolled in the five categories of institutions. More than half of them were in upper secondary schools and 68 percent of the total enrollment was in programs at the upper secondary level.

The number of technical colleges, special training schools, and miscellaneous schools in 1985 is shown in table 1, together with the distribution by administrative category (national, local public, and private). The 1985 enrollment in each of these three types of institutions and the percentage distribution of enrollment by gender and control are shown in table 13. Enrollments at upper secondary and postsecondary levels in the five types of institutions offering vocational and technical programs are given in table 14

Work preparation outside the school system

Postcompulsory vocational training is also offered outside the formal education system. Programs of Japan's large companies are of special significance. Although these companies make up only half of 1 percent of the total number of companies in Japan, they employ over one-fourth of the work force and produce nearly 50 percent of the nation's GNP. [3] The education and training they provide is designed to enhance the productivity and flexibility of their work force, particularly in meeting the changing demands of the marketplace and the national economy. Their investment in education and training is long term; it appears to increase during recessions.

Undergirding the formal and informal training provided by companies is management's view that employees have an obligation to develop themselves, often on their own time. However, employers' definition of what constitutes self-development is broad, ranging from attending public seminars to reading professional journals. Although self-development is not mandatory, employees know that their supervisors place a great deal of emphasis on it and will weigh employee efforts of this sort in the annual evaluation process.

Besides the various training programs of private employers, Japan has a national vocational training law with provisions for both public and private enterprises. Under it, the government provides a variety of incentives including training allowances for the unemployed, financial assistance to small and medium size firms, incentive grants for paid educational leave, and advisory and institutional services.

Through the Ministry of Labor, the government also sponsors basic training, skill improvement training, retraining for new occupations, and instructor training. In 1981 there were approximately 3,000 courses offered in about 400 public training centers for some 300,000 students. Yet, this program has not been particularly successful in attracting job seekers who want to learn new skills, largely because employers have not recruited heavily from these programs. [4]

Transition from secondary school to work

There are three main points of transition into employment for nonuniversity bound youth: at the completion of compulsory education, i.e. after 9th grade; at the completion of upper secondary school (equivalent of high school graduation in the United States); and at the completion of occupational training at the postsecondary level.

Only about 3 percent of students begin work directly upon completion of compulsory education. Such students have no vocational or occupational training. Among high school graduates, however, 40 percent enter the labor force directly, while about 55 percent go on to some kind of postsecondary education or training and about 5 percent are unemployed table 5. A major factor in the smooth transition of students from secondary school to work is an effective job referral system.

This system is based on cooperation and trust between employers, schools, and the Public Employment Security Office (PESO) operated by the Ministry of Labor. It relies as well on the confidence of students in their teachers, advisors, and counselors. The underlying goal of the system is to minimize unemployment by giving every student a chance to be employed. A strong national economy with a continuing need for additional manpower during the past few decades has made the high employment rate possible.

The employment services system has its legal basis in the Employment Security Law of 1947. The underlying principle is that job placement assistance for youth should be supplied only by PESO and other nonprofit organizations, including schools. (This orientation stems from prewar experience with youth exploitation by various commercial forces.) Direct communication is prohibited between a company offering positions and high school students seeking employment. Actual contacts between them can only be made by PESO or by schools and other nonprofit organizations. In practice, because of the large number of high school graduates and other demands upon PESO, the responsibility for maintaining contact with companies and assisting high school students in their search for employment is borne mainly by the schools.

The process begins with companies determining their manpower needs and preparing a recruitment card for each job to be filled. The card describes the job, the company, and the terms and conditions of employment. The card is reviewed by PESO for compliance with applicable standards, including wages and benefits. Cards approved by PESO are then used by the schools as the basis for job referral assistance. Many companies also send representatives to visit the schools and meet with placement counselors, but not with the students.

The schools devote much effort to placing students in suitable positions. They maintain placement offices where students can review the recruitment cards and other information on employers. Full-time or part-time placement counselors consult students about their job preferences and assist them in preparing personal histories, advise them on how to behave during interviews, and even conduct mock company entrance examinations and interviews. If two or more students at a school are interested in the same position at a company, the school staff confers and decides which students will apply in which order to take the company's examination. In making such a decision, the staff considers not only grades, but also the number of times a student has been absent and tardy, as well as other behavioral characteristics of importance to an employer. By mid-August the internal selection process in the school is completed.

Beginning in September of the April-March school year, 12th grade students submit their applications to the companies. Company entrance tests cannot legally be taken until October, and no employment decisions may be made until that time. The test may include a written examination, an IQ test, a physical examination, and an interview or some combination of these. Companies pay attention to grooming, general appearance, personality, and school records. Club participation is also considered important in many cases because similar group relationships exist in certain company situations.

By mid-November most students have found employment. According to a recent study, boys have an easier time than girls in being hired into good jobs directly out of high school. [5] Others whose initial applications were not successful are in the process of taking second or third company entrance examinations. The school continues to help students find jobs until the end of May, about 2 months after graduation. After that time, schools are prohibited from aiding students in their search for jobs. But by then the great majority have become employed. The rest continue the search on their own.

The employment process serves as both a learning and motivational experience for secondary school students. It provides a potent signal to all that by remaining within the school system the student has a better chance to get a job upon completion of his or her studies.

The program provides most students with useful and accurate information about specific jobs and with active assistance in the job search process. But schools do not feel any obligation to recommend a student whose record has not met the school's standards of academic performance and behavior, including attendance and punctuality. Generally speaking, students who choose not to participate in the system are likely to end up in less satisfactory jobs, often temporary ones at low wages.

The system is generally effective in placing noncollege bound youth in their first jobs within a few months after graduation. Among the factors contributing to its success are active involvement of employers; a common commitment and mutual trust among schools, employers, and PESO; reliable information exchange among the participating parties; clarity of mission and concentration of effort; focus on entry level jobs for young people with limited skills; and emphasis on opportunities in small business.

Employers are well aware of the status ranking of high schools and they compete to recruit from the top ranked institutions. Career counselors try to send their best students to the most desirable employers in order to maintain the reputation and placement records of their schools. The personal networks that link business personnel officers and school teachers and guidance personnel make their own contribution to the placement process in a fashion analogous to what occurs en route to higher education and subsequent employment for university graduates.

Transition from postsecondary education to work

Graduation from universities, as in the rest of the education system, takes place in March, but by agreement between the universities and employers the recruitment process officially begins the previous October. In years when economic prospects are bright and there is heavy demand for university graduates, the process begins even earlier.

Prospective graduates may apply to companies directly, through a university placement office, or through personal connections. The procedure used varies according to the department or faculty in which a student is enrolled, the status of the university he or she attends, the availability of university placement services, and the personal connections of family, friends or faculty mentor.

PESO is not a significant factor in placing university graduates, but there is a special public program to facilitate job search for university graduates who desire employment outside large urban areas. For this purpose, the Ministry of Labor and the prefectural governments operate 54 public placement offices throughout the country.

While direct application by students to employers is becoming common, the traditional pattern of direct employer to university faculty or department contact continues to be dominant where prestigious institutions, companies, and fields are concerned.

For example, when a major company seeks an engineering graduate from a top university, the company frequently taps its special connections with faculty members in that institution. This has the advantage of assuring the company that the student recommended is well-qualified, since the sponsoring professor does not want to damage his connections with the company, and that the student will accept the position offered because the student traditionally has a strong, continuing obligation to his professor. In contrast, social science and humanities majors are more apt to apply directly to prospective employers or to work through university placement offices where they exist. Even when the more prestigious employers are willing to be approached by students directly, they may restrict acceptance of applications to graduates of particular universities or to specific academic units within a university.

Public universities seldom operate their own placement offices, but private universities often have active ones. The placement office screens the graduates, matching them by quality and quantity to a company's request. If the number and quality of referrals a company receives do not meet its needs, the company may not recruit from that university in the future. This is a serious matter for private universities whose reputations - and enrollments-are largely based on their success in placing graduates in good firms. It is at least as serious for the individual student whose choices for future employment are being determined by an institutional middleman.

Employers can initiate direct contact with college students on October 1 and begin their recruitment examinations November 1. The applicant is almost always given a written examination and an interview, but a detailed assessment of the student's professional knowledge is not particularly important to a company. The company believes it can judge the caliber of a potential employee by knowing which university he attended. In any case, the company expects to provide its own on-the-job training for all new employees. The purpose of the written test is to determine the extent of the applicant's knowledge of general information and current events. The interview is used to assess the applicant's personality, motivation, leadership potential, appearance, attitude towards business, and how well he will fit in with company culture and the other employees.

For most students, the company examination and interview are basically rituals that confirm decisions reached earlier as a result of a visit to the company the student may have made the previous summer or fall. It is not uncommon for students to visit several firms during the summer. The better candidates often receive informal confirmation of employment offers shortly after such visits.

There is intense competition for the best students, who often receive offers from several companies. Competition does not involve much difference in salary level but, rather, revolves more around the student's perception of the relative prestige and lifetime employment prospects of competing employers. Selection of the first employer is as important as selection of university, because after employment there is little opportunity for mobility between companies of comparable prestige in the same, or even in different, industries.

In 1985, over three-fourths of the prospective graduates had been informally notified by November 1 by the firms that would make them offers. By the end of November, 95 percent of the students have received firm employment offers. [6]

The majority of graduates recruited into large companies for lifetime careers generally come from the national universities or the most prestigious private institutions. University graduates going into small and middle-sized companies come primarily from the newer private institutions. A recent study effectively summarized the direct linkage between top ranked universities and companies: "If one desires a career in an excellent company, one first has to be admitted to a prestigious university. Thus labor market competition is transformed into college entrance competition." [7]

The transition to work for graduates of postsecondary institutions other than universities is similar in range and diversity to the pattern for universities. For example, placement services are normally available in technical colleges as well as in special training colleges. There are various patterns of direct contact between and among students, companies, and institutions. There is direct recruitment by companies in some situations as well as widespread individual student initiative in job search. Contacts through personal networks or those of family and friends often play a key role in preferred access to employment opportunities.

Role of employers

Employers play significant roles in education. They establish and maintain the value of education credentials through their employment policies and recruitment practices. Credentials, based essentially on the general reputation of the institution granting them rather than on the specific nature and caliber of the student's academic work, are utilized as a screening device. This is true not only for employment by the more prestigious companies, but also for most kinds and levels of positions in the public and private sectors.

Given the essentially linear and unforgiving nature of Japanese education and credentialism--with few alternative routes and second chance career opportunities (except to retake university entrance examinations)--the career prospect die is largely cast for the great majority of students when they enter high school.

Employers have been satisfied with the examination and credentials system because in their experience it effectively identifies employees who have demonstrated a high level of intellectual ability, diligence, and motivation. An example of recent confirmation of this concept is found in a 1983 survey conducted by the Hitachi Research Institute. [8] The results showed that 83 percent of management and 66 percent of union respondents believed that the existing system of recruiting university graduates would not be changed.

As noted earlier, large companies also provide extensive on-and off-the-job training for their employees. Most middle-sized companies and many of the smaller ones also furnish some measure of training. The point is that employees are kept up-to-date through company training programs, not through part-time study at postsecondary education institutions.

Finally, employers identify and articulate their needs so that the education system can respond to them. A .major example of such responsiveness has been the creation of the special training schools to meet skilled manpower needs.

Concluding observation

In Japan, the relationship between education and the economy appears to be closer and more effective than in most other industrialized nations. Japan does a very effective job of providing a flexible and productive labor force for its economy, in large part because of the pivotal roles played by a high level of basic education, disciplined work habits, and group cohesiveness--all school based or fostered. Indeed, the remarkable performance of the Japanese economy over the past 25 years provides compelling testimony to the fundamental contributions that education can make to national development and international competitiveness.


 

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