Japan Inc scrambles for job-hoppers to cope with labour shortages

Pedestrians cross a street at a business district in Tokyo on Feb 20, 2013.
Pedestrians cross a street at a business district in Tokyo on Feb 20, 2013.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japan's labour shortage has pushed job-hopping to its highest since the global financial crisis, as companies scramble for workers with experience in the rapidly-ageing economy.

Job-hopping goes against the grain of Japan's work culture, where many companies hire graduates and employ them until they retire. But the country's jobs-for-life system is slowly giving way as firms curb labour costs and society shifts.

Switching jobs for better conditions is no longer taboo amid a tightening labour market, and the trend is being led by mid-career workers.

"There's always a risk of failure. But you can't get what you want if you don't try," said Hiromichi Itakura, 44, head of a medical job placement department at Saint Media, who changed jobs in January.

"I took up this job because it gives me a more responsible post. As a salary man, I also wanted a higher salary," he said, adding that his pay is now 20 per cent higher than previously.

The number of job-hoppers rose for the seventh straight year to 3.06 million in 2016, the highest since 2009, though it still accounts for just 4.8 per cent of the labour market. Older workers have more opportunities because of demographics: a fast-ageing society, low birth rate and falling working-age population.

The jobless rate has stood at a near two-decade low while the jobs-to-applicants ratio is at a 43-year high.

Big firms say the labour market is at its tightest since 1992, according to the Bank of Japan's latest "tankan" survey published this week.

Though job turnover is still low relative to other major economies - the change should be welcome news to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been championing labour flexibility and merit-based pay - with little success so far.

Enhancing labour mobility is expected to help raise low productivity and boost wages, getting Japan convincingly out of a deflationary rut.

Companies facing labour shortages are willing to pay for battle-tested workers who don't need as much training.

Electric motor maker Nidec Corp is actively hiring mid-career engineers and remunerating them for their experience. "Competition is tough for tried-and-true personnel," a company spokesman said on condition of anonymity. "We are doing our best to persuade talented people to join our company."

Job-hoppers aged between mid-40s and 65 or older are on the rise, hitting their highest, according to comparable data going back to 2002. "The mid-career job market is booming," said Hirofumi Amano of en-japan inc, a job placement agency.