Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Japan Is Running Out of Engineers?

Rikei Banare!

After years of fretting over coming shortages, the country is actually facing a dwindling number of young people entering engineering and technology-related fields.

Universities call it “rikei banare,” or “flight from science.” The decline is growing so drastic that industry has begun advertising campaigns intended to make engineering look sexy and cool, and companies are slowly starting to import foreign workers, or sending jobs to where the engineers are, in Vietnam and India.

It was engineering prowess that lifted this nation from postwar defeat to economic superpower. But according to educators, executives and young Japanese themselves, the young here are behaving more like Americans: choosing better-paying fields like finance and medicine, or more purely creative careers, like the arts, rather than following their salaryman fathers into the unglamorous world of manufacturing.

Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it? One way Japan can start to reverse this trend is to increase the salary they offer engineers (which should begin to happen as they get more scarce).

Japan's dilemma (in contrast to the US) is that they are not culturally very open to foreigners immigrating, so it's difficult for them to simply import more tech workers:

While ingrained xenophobia is partly to blame, companies say Japan’s language and closed corporate culture also create barriers so high that many foreign engineers simply refuse to come, even when they are recruited.

As a result, some companies are moving research jobs to India and Vietnam because they say it is easier than bringing non-Japanese employees here.

Japan's populaion is also aging far more rapidly than that of the US, meaning their workforce is quickly shrinking. Their education system is also not as flexible as America's and it is extremely rare for people to go back to school after having started their first career.

Japan's demographics pose many challenges to the country. The shortage of engineers seems like it should be of much less concern than its shortage of children.

I worked as an engineer for Japanese companies for six years before coming back to school and it is the one country I have visited most frequently and feel closest to outside the US. It makes me sad to think of the challenges that lie ahead for their nation. While I think there are some painful transitions ahead, I am confident the people of Japan will find ways to adapt to these changes in a distinctly Japanese way.

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