Suddenly, No More Jobs On A Silver Platter

The economic downturn is giving Japan's college grads the jitters

It was known as an urite shijo, or seller's market. Scrambling to keep up with Japan's hot-growth economy in the late 1980s, companies swamped college seniors at elite schools with job offers. They were treated to lavish dinners and nights out singing at karaoke bars. So intense was the competition that company gumshoes occasionally tailed recruits after they got job offers to make sure other companies weren't courting them.

That's history now. New graduates are the ones scrambling, as sales of everything from camcorders to autos nose-dive. Top manufacturers such as Nissan Motor, Matsushita Electric Industrial, and Sony are suddenly cooling on new hires. Leading retailer Takashimaya Co. is slashing new jobs by 20% to cope with weak consumer spending. Brokers such as Nomura Securities Co. and Daiwa Securities Co., bruised by the collapse of the Tokyo stock market, have cut hiring by over half.

Yet the bleaker prospects for graduates may actually be good news for U.S. and other foreign companies operating in Japan. The weak economy could "give us an opportunity to interview more talented people," says Hiroyuki Ishikawa, head of personnel at Citibank's Japan subsidiary. A ban on recruiting until early July imposed by the Labor Ministry on top Japanese companies may also be steering more students toward foreign companies, which are not bound by the rule. Ishikawa started receiving job inquiries from students in February, two months earlier than usual. He had to turn away 200 students wishing to attend a May information session.

FACING REALITY. Japanese companies have come to realize that they may have been too generous with their welcome mats in the past. During the late 1980s, payrolls expanded dramatically as companies feared labor shortages in such fast-growing fields as computers, robots, and autos. Now, companies are slashing more than just capital investment. "We'd like to keep hiring at a constant rate," says Shinji Tamura, head of personnel at Toshiba Corp. "But we have to face reality." While hirings are down, salaries usually aren't cut.

Not surprisingly, the turn of events has triggered some hysteria among Japan's young job seekers. "It's really terrible," frets an international business major at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. "All of us are worried." At Sophia University, the spartan counseling office has been a mob scene. Grim-faced students anxiously thumb through thick computer lists of companies and recently graduated "old boys" and "old girls," hunting for contacts who can provide key introductions. Still, even that tried-and-true tactic is fast becoming a dead end. This year, some companies are instructing young employees to avoid private meetings with job seekers. "It's a reversal," says Katsu Tanaka, career counseling chiefat Sophia. "The compa-nies have completely changed their attitudes." To be noticed, some students have adopted more aggressive interview tactics such as abandoning honorific language during interviews and making direct eye contact----considered rude in Japan.

Job prospects this year for graduating women may be worse than for men. Although Japan's corporate structure continues to be male-dominated, a few companies in recent years have started to hire women for such full-time professional positions as marketing and design. But now there are worries that the economic slowdown will seriously dampen such hiring. "It's always been tough for women," says a 21-year-old female student at Sophia who hopes to work for Bank of Tokyo Ltd. What's more, in Japan, the door to a top-tier Japanese company usually opens just once. By contrast, Americans climbing the executive ladder can easily job-hop in mid-career. That puts even more pressure on the Japanese grad looking for that critical first job. Now, how do you say "buyer's market" in Japanese?

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