The Japan NewsDizzying technological advancement is increasingly posing challenges and chances for nations around the world to develop creative human resources knowledgeable about local and international affairs, and social and scientific fields. Given the rapid aging of society, how should Japan address and take advantage of the globalizing job market? Heading Robert Walters Japan K.K. (see below) as managing director, Jeremy Sampson presented his longtime observations on Japan in an interview with The Japan News.
Q: How did Japan come into your life?
Sampson: When I was probably 10 years old, I started karate for a little while. In my high school [in Australia], we had a sister school from Gifu which came and visited us. I had an opportunity to learn a little bit of Japanese in high school, but even at that point I didn’t have that interest to live and move out here. It wasn’t until several years later, after university. I moved to Cairns, Australia, which is a very popular place for Japanese.
One of my first jobs there was working for a major hotel chain and my job was actually doing sales to Japanese inbound tourism companies. It was actually my experience in working in sales in the tourism industry and dealing with Japanese customers and clients which actually sparked my interest and got me most interested to come out and live and work here.
In Robert Walters, it was fairly easy [for me to get accustomed] mainly because this is such an international company. Probably 50 percent of our employees are Japanese but 50 percent are non-Japanese.
Western firms operate faster
Q: Have you enjoyed the process of learning Japanese corporate culture?
A: Every single day I’m learning more and more about Japanese business, mind-sets and culture, and I’ll continue to do so. It has been an interesting journey. I’ve realized that Australia and Western corporate culture compared to Japanese corporate culture does have its differences. One of the reasons I’m working here after 12 years in corporate Japan is because I like, respect and really appreciate the way that we do business and operate in Japan.
There are quite a few differences. One thing is the speed at which companies operate. I think sometimes Western companies have a tendency to operate at a much faster pace, which sometimes can also be a negative, too. Whereas in Japan there is much more loyalty to the organization or loyalty to the business, in Western countries people tend to change and move around quite a lot more. There’s a lot greater focus on the Japanese corporate side on quality, process and customer service.
Q: As Japan’s corporate world faces a rapidly aging society, the Japanese government has adopted relevant policies, including work style reform and cautiously opening its labor market to foreign workers. Are these the right policies?
A: I think they are definitely a step in the right direction. So far, of the steps that have been taken, we are seeing a positive impact. In terms of loosening immigration, that’s something we’ve seen having quite an impact on our business already, especially over the last few years. We have seen companies employing more and more foreign nationals, especially in more technical functions, engineering type of functions, for example.
In terms of immigration, here at Robert Walters, we employ people from over 30 nationalities. The visa process for us when we employ a foreign national in our company seems to be quite smooth and efficient.
The next important step is probably for the corporate side. Corporates need to be more open to employing foreigners. Obviously, it’s something that we have adopted for many years and don’t have a problem with, but it’s important that corporate Japan does embrace the employment of more foreign talent.
Education system creates gaps
Q: Is education in Japan catching up with the increasingly globalized corporate world’s needs?
A: I think it is catching up and things are moving in the right direction. The “bunkei” (humanities and social sciences) and “rikei” (natural sciences) [two-track] system [in Japanese high schools and universities] has created some gaps, I believe. Previously, where a student in the sciences or technical related fields wouldn’t necessarily have exposure to education in language or a more business context, conversely, students in the bunkei system wouldn’t have exposure to more technical fields.
One of the issues that we see these days is a shortage of engineers who speak English. If there is more convergence there and people who are studying engineering fields are also having more exposure or more ability to study foreign languages or English, for example, then that can bridge that gap to a degree.
Q: Do Japanese engineers need to further improve their writing skills or the way they express their thinking?
A: I think communication skills, in general, are crucial, and that would refer to reading, writing and verbal communication, too. Especially in companies globalizing in Japan and foreign companies entering Japan, it is very important to have those strong communication skills in general, but it’s also not purely about communication skills. If you have the communication skills without the technical skills, it’s going to be a trade-off for one or the other.
I think that’s where the real opportunity is — for people with strong technical skills and strong English communication skills. I guess previously the English skills alone would’ve sufficed, whereas now, especially with the emergence of technology, to have a combination of both [is necessary].
Q: What do people with humanities and social sciences backgrounds need to do?
A: As technology evolves, so many more jobs that are created are more knowledge-based or more technical-type positions. Communication skills alone are not going to pave the way for their career. It’s important to combine those communication and business skills with some hard type of technical skills.
When I say technical skills I don’t necessarily mean engineering. It could be accounting skills, business planning and analysis, or hard skills that really make a contribution to a business in either an engineering function or a management function.
I was just listening to a Japanese CEO talking about his business and the biggest issue they have and Japanese companies in general is low productivity. I think that is one thing that does hinder especially the big Japanese corporates. I guess that stems from the seniority system and the lack of merit-based pay and performance-based promotion, among other reasons.
Q: How should the apparent supply-demand gap in Japan’s labor market be addressed?
A: If you look at the job to job seeker ratio across Japan, right now it’s about 1.6 jobs for every job seeker. When you look at Tokyo in particular, that’s over two jobs for every job seeker. Unfortunately, the supply doesn’t meet the demand. I can’t see that changing too much in the immediate future, in the near future. The interesting thing is when you compound English requirements or when you compound that with technical skills, sometimes those ratios can be as high as 5-to-1 or 10-to-1 — 10 jobs for every job seeker.
The population will continue to decline. That’s not going to turn around. As long as the economy remains quite strong, that gap will continue to increase. I think that it has to be tackled at a few different levels. It is being tackled now at the government level. It has to be tackled at the corporate level. I think it has to be tackled, too, at the technological level with new technologies to create efficiency.
It also needs to be tackled at the individual or employee level because there are areas where we see a surplus of talent in the more clerical and administrative type of areas, maybe in the more senior end of the population closer to retirement, yet there remains a huge gap in the middle.
Right person for right job
Q: How do you think gender parity in Japan’s job market should be promoted? Do you think more women’s participation in the labor force will address sexism?
A: Here at Robert Walters, of our employees, 50 percent are females. We have seen some clients really emphasizing the hiring of more females in their business. We’ve also had some clients who will pay a premium to hire a female in a management position. So some companies are making a strong effort there, but I guess it’s also important to provide the flexible working positions that are going to accommodate that person to return to the workforce.
Q: Do you think a kind of affirmative action or preferential treatment for women is required to address the issue?
A: In the case of Robert Walters, almost one-third of our management team is female. But that’s not through any initiatives. That’s not through any quotas. This has happened purely organically. From our perspective, our approach has been to promote the best person for the job regardless of gender and that has worked very well for us.
I do believe promoting or hiring the right person for the right job or the best person for the job is what’s crucial. I think it’s just important that it is a large number of females who are considered the best person for that particular position. I think it’s maybe a good thing to have quotas and regulations around that, as long as it’s not promoting the wrong people for the wrong reason.
AI can’t replace humans
Q: Among many ongoing global affairs, which one particularly interests you?
A: From a professional perspective, one of the things that I’m most interested about is technology and the developments, AI, industry 4.0 and things like that. These are things that have a direct impact on our business and on the labor shortage in Japan.
I think AI plays a big role in the future of our business as well as our clients’ business and the recruitment industry in general. We’ve explored and looked at AI and how it impacts our business and how we recruit. We’ve trialed various technologies to various levels of success in our internal recruitment processes. There’s a lot of talk about AI and technology having a big impact on the recruitment industry.
I’m a firm believer that technology and AI are going to create efficiencies and create increased productivity in what we do. And that’s going to allow us as a recruitment firm and as a consulting company to focus on the elements that AI can’t replace, and that is the human interaction. Our business is a human relationship-focused business. The implementation and utilization of these AI and technological tools ultimately help our business to be more productive, create more efficiencies and allow us to focus on the core elements on the people side of our business.
Much of our business these days is focused on recruitment for these technology companies. We are seeing an ever-increasing number of positions and recruitment for these AI technology-based type of companies. It impacts us in the way that we recruit for ourselves, it impacts the way that we recruit for our clients and it impacts our clients and the demands that we see. So threefold, actually it has quite an impact on our business.
It’s important to remember that we as humans control the work and the job that AI will do.
This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Michinobu Yanagisawa.
Originally from outside of Brisbane, Australia, Sampson joined Robert Walters Japan in 2006. After being appointed to director of the commerce and industry division of the firm in 2013, Sampson assumed his current position in September of this year. He holds a Bachelor of Business Management Administration from Griffith University in Australia. Sampson was born in 1981.
■ Robert Walters Japan K.K.
Robert Walters Japan K.K. is the Japan arm of Robert Walters Plc., a London-based recruitment consultancy specializing in the placement of professionals across various levels of seniority since 1985. Based in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, the Japanese firm has been a driving force in the nation’s bilingual recruitment market since 2000 and opened its Osaka office in 2007.