Japan Today

Japan struggling to fight shortage of skilled engineers


At the Chiba shipyard of Mitsui Engineering & Shipbuilding Co. facing Tokyo Bay, there is an office building with a sign reading ''Center for Handing Down Technology,'' and on its door, there is a poster with the faces of 28 older workers wearing helmets. They are veteran engineers, called ''skill masters,'' who are in charge of fostering young engineers. About 300 engineers at the shipyard, accounting for 49 percent of the total, are aged between 51 and 60. During the shipbuilding recession in the mid-1970s through the 1980s, shipbuilding companies refrained from recruiting new engineers with a resultant shortage of mid-level engineers responsible for the next generation.

The center, set up in January last year, has been producing steady results and is said to be popular even among young engineers. Skill masters Mitsuo Kato, 59, a section chief, and Eijiro Furukawa, 57, an assistant section chief, both have experience of giving technical guidance in South Korea and China. Kato said, ''The Japanese are trying to own skills jointly and mutually and to make things better, but the South Koreans and Chinese are reluctant to share skills they have acquired with others. The Japanese way to hand down their skills to future generations is the way to go. Mass retirements from the company peaked in the period from 2000 to 2004 with about 1,000 employees reaching the compulsory retirement age, but the company managed to tide over the difficulty by introducing a ''meister system'' in which veteran engineers hand down their skills to the next generation.

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Well, in their great wisdom and knowledge, these large companies suppressed by lack of adequate salary, promotion and simple dignity many of their "restructured" engineers for years. These ambitious people got hired elsewhere in Asia by the competitors. Last October 5,000 of them were hired overseas on the same day at a big recruiting fair in Tokyo! Qualifications and experience paid for by the Japanese taxpayer, all sent overseas! That's why the dearth of talent and the "struggle" being faced today. And they wonder why the economy has hollowed-out!

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Libertas: The definition of "Engineer" is different than what you are used to. Engineer is used in Japan to include many types of skilled laborers. Technicians and skilled tradesmen (electricians, welders, plumbers) is what the article likely refers to. Your reference to 5,000 hired overseas are the University graduate type of Engineers that design projects but don't know how to use a hammer (like 'Paper drivers' people with a driver's licence but never drive)

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my wife was an engineer at a big company. master degree from top uni, so her work was engineering, not technician or the sort. however, after working 14-16 hours a day, being called on Saturdays and Sundays as well, all for a miserable salary, just had enough and I have a few other engineer friends in Japan who have similar experiences. so I agree with Libertas

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"Your reference to 5,000 hired overseas are the University graduate type of Engineers that design projects but don't know how to use a hammer (like 'Paper drivers' people with a driver's licence but never drive)" Au contraire. The folks who were hired overseas were hired into technical transfer, supervisory and hands-on project management positions. They were accorded salary increases, a staff to train/teach and manage and given admin assistance. They are very much the people who know how things work, and can fix them when they don't. I agree that they may not all meet the requirements for "P.Eng" status in Commonwealth countries, they'd probably be the equivalent of Master Craftsmen, but paper pushers they most definitely were not. They'd been eliminated by the paper pushers who didn't understand their inherent value, and who now have no skilled/experienced people left. This is a national crisis in Japan, brought about by poor management by the very paper pushers you mention.

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the apprentice system is great for trades that have a lot of tradition and tradecraft. This applies to the hundreds of arts and crafts that have existed in Japan for the last thousand years, without much change.

For high-tech areas such as engineering, new ideas and technologies make it impractical for someone to learn from an "old school" guy near his retirement.

Japan has to look abroad for the new entry level engineering positions. When i was at a top engineering school in the US, the americans where the minority there. The way that my old school has attracted the top talent on a global basis is what keeps it as #1.

Japan's tough immigration policies and Japanese-language-only education and trades will prevent them from achieving long term growth. As a result, they will need to spend more and more billions in overpriced local R&D.

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The Japanese way to hand down their skills to future generations is the way to go

As long as the younger generation want to apprentice that is fine, but they want the quick buck now for as small as effort as possible.

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Many foreign engineers came in the past to fill this shortage. Now many of them are going back to their home countries. Japan has no plan how to create more skilled engineers in its homeland. Some foreign engineers are doing labor work in the Japanese factories even they are skilled engineers. Japanese institutes only teach MS-office or Operating System in many skilled up program. I found a Japanese student spend 200,000 Yen to learn just “Hello World” Program in Java language in Aichi. After this short-term course he can’t be a programmer. There is no guarantee that you will get a job after spending huge money. Due to cost factor Indian or Chinese IT experts get these jobs in Japan. These overseas IT experts spend hardly 50,000 Yen to be a programmer and 500 yen to get all pirated software at their homeland. So they can brush up their skill free of cost. This is a small example. That’s why young Japanese can not be an IT engineer. They drop out of high school each year.

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What's to stop a Japanese simply buying a Java text book for 8000 yen and learning to program by him/herself?

And it's incredibly ignorant and arrogant to suggest that foreigners study IT using pirated software.

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It is easy to blame others for anything that is not to our liking. And how does the Japanese tax payer pay for someone’s training and skills? If I am not correct, correct me, but most people pay for their own education. Skills are accrued while gainfully employed or on training programs. Very few if any, training programs, involve tax payers, other than as companies, and said companies are having work performed.

The solution to any engineer shortage is to make engineering jobs more attractive to potential employees, and also improve access to engineering courses. Mentoring as mentioned in the article is also a good idea.


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That's too bad. I was about to suggest that Japan, South Korea and China put aside their political differences to jointly produce better and safer passenger planes, as EU does to produce their Airbuses to compete with America's Boeing and McDonnell Douglas.

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The problem with Japan and some other Asian countries is the mandatory retirement age of 60. Here in Japan many companies will allow you to stay beyond 60, but at a ridiculously low salary. My company told me the same thing, since I will be 60 in two year; a Beijing firm has already offered me a salary at my current level plus housing in an exclusive area – what would you do?

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The problem with Japan and some other Asian countries is the mandatory retirement age of 60.

Heh, in Korea some companies seem to start to push the workers out the door once they reach 40. Too many college grads can't seem to find jobs after they graduate, also - sometimes up to several years.

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@taiko666: His comment was only ignorant if he was making a wild guess. I don't have to make wild guesses -- being in China, I can absolutely confirm you'd have an absolute HELL of a time finding a single person anywhere in this country who didn't learn on pirated compilers, and they openly admit to it. At an international software co. I have coworkers who openly tell me they have never purchased a piece of software of any sort whatsoever in their entire life, even though they make their living by it. This does give them an unfair advantage over me for sure because I'm not willing to do the same, even if it's "just for learning".

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What's so surprising.

Are any of these companies facing these shortages willing to change their ethos to attract talented people? Salaries, smart people, decent working hours that are necessary for creativity, or does one have to survive in gray boxed cubicles of under-airconditioned offices?

Similarly, is the Japanese government willing to change its immigration policies to give foreign talent any real room to be in Japan? Even people who have learned Japanese, married a Japanese woman, and all but pawned their left testicle in the country are not given a true welcome in the country.

Stop harping about the issues if you don't have the balls to do anything about it. Japan will continue to go down the drain unless they change their basics in this globalized economy, which is only going to be more and more global. Japan will be the odd cross-dressed known mainly for its Harajuku antics than for anything meaningful.

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@parasite: getting pirated software is no great shakes. It's available online and will probably be easier to download with Japan's 100MB connections. Stop looking for paltry excuses for your own lack of competency.

Everyone does, and should, make the best use of whatever resources are available for them. If Chinese and other folks with lesser money than you in Japan are making themselves competitive, by whatever means available to them, they sure can have the job in my book over any whiner.

In any case, engineering skills are not all possible from a pirate piece of software. AutoCAD won't get you a job at a real firm nor make you a star engineer. Get your bearing right.

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I have seen many young students doing 2 weeks work experience in engineering. They come full of the glamour of being an engineer, after getting their hands dirty in the workshop and going home tired after just doing a little of the work and seeing what engineers actually do in the first few days, they are very happy to join the engineers in the office. Even here students soon wilt when faced with filling in reports under supervision and accompanying engineers going about their daily work by the end of their 2 week period most have decide engineering is not for them. Engineering is a hard life at any level and the rewards are very poor. This is why many engineers move into sales or easier jobs with the same money or more money. Japan is just finding out engineers with their higher mathematical and management skills have no problem finding work in other fields paying higher salaries. They don't have to put up with poor management inherient in Japanese companies, in some cases they just move overseas seeking a better life style.

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High time to make new policy to promote engineering and science as major subjects among Japnese students and a the same time allow expatriates to work in Japan until Japan produces sufficient engineers and scients in coming years.

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Tatanka if they offered the same money, I would ask for more. Then take the money and enjoy Beijing

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Pasha 51 why promote engineering and science among students when you will lose most of them when they graduate. You have to want to be an engineer or scientist they are born, not created in a class room. You have look after the ones you get, the people who think they want to be engineers because of other personal agendas don't last in engineering, it is too demanding.

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I was a mechanical engineer by profession, my job skills required me to program and create anything from a block of metal on a machining center. I loved my job so much so that I continued with it for more than three years. I will try and list some of the reasons why in the end I decided to leave.

One problem was that the pay sucked (140,000 basic + allowances - taxes/pension = 220,000/month) and even though I envied my peers in other fields, who were earning nearly twice as much, I still stuck to my job because I loved it...that is till I came across a way better opportunity in a totally unrelated field.

The second problem was that I was never respected for what I could do, the bullying and other degradory treatment I had to go through because of where I am from. There were four of us in a company of 60+ employees (one year the company gave all the Japanese staff bonuses and were instructed to hide the fact from us foreigners, it only took one guy to get drunk at the bonenkai).

There were Japanese hopefuls who were hired in as apprentices but none lasted more than two weeks because they couldn't handle the manual labour one had to do with the job. Everyone was looking to make easy money.

My seniors were starting to get jealous because i had learnt what I could from them and was improving efficiency which resulted in making production runs shorter than what my senseis were showing on record. Their way of retaliating was by destroying during lunch what I completed in the morning. This happened for a while and the management had a deaf ear to my complaints because my word as a foreigner didn't count for much.

I left and within a year amid rising raw material costs the company was forced to go bankrupt.

As somepne who has worked with the working-class Japanese, I can confidently say that they only will let foreigners in where they want some sort of dirty work done and love exploiting you where they know it will hurt you.

Their immigration laws are a very big sham and their diplomatic relations are only bully tactics that they force on third world countries by threatening them with suspension of their ODA. Their human rights laws are a sham and the government actively participates in covering up all violations, lest their precious image be tarnished. (more than half the institutions registered to employ workers under the skills training program, violate all rules and treat their guests like shit. I had aa acquaintance who came to Japan on such a program and his employer took his passport, his father died and they refused to give him the passport. I contacted the police about it they, the police were telling me that the company had the right to do what it did. I think that only the issuing country or embassy has the right to take your passport away from you).

I still laugh at the thought that they were pushing for a permanent weat in the UN

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cnc Great post! I loved your finale: I still laugh at the thought that they were pushing for a permanent seat in the UN! Can you IMAGINE this level of dithering at the Security Council? Ha! Domestic problems like the topic here about, but they choose not to fix it. I couldn't imagine all the head-tilting and sucking of wind through the teeth that would happen in a crisis!

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It is not just japan that is suffering from a lack of engineering skills.

The UK, Australia, Middle East and several other places are suffering from this shortage.

It is a problem of attracting people into the various engineering fields at a young age. Many universities in the UK don't have enough numbers applying for places on engineering courses. This in turn makes it difficult to justify running the course financially. It is a vicious cycle that may seriously start to cramp their ability to compete globally.

The truth is that engineers make EVERYTHING. The machines that manufacture cars, planes, soap, packaging, tables, refine fuel, make electricity, air conditioners, paper, pencils, computers, books. Literally EVERY PRODUCT has needed an engineer to work on it at some point.

I am an engineer in the UK. I worked for a biological laboratory automation comapany and now on control systems for gas turbines (powerplants).

I would love to come and live and work in Japan, but I fear my family and I would not be welcome. My wife is a doctor (General Practicioner) and we have just had a son (7 months old).

My wifes qualifications, I do not know if they are recognised. I love japanese culture and cuteness. My karaoke skills are unmatched. I love japanese rock and punk music. I would watch anime ALL the time if I could.

Anyway, I am just saying that the Japanese make it very difficult for foreigners like myself to even consider attempting to move over, even though in the rest of the world we have highly desirable skills and would not claim social benefits, just pay high rates of tax.

Its a bit backward.

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Oh, and I pay for my software. (but I get big discounts through my engineering institute)

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the US has the same problem with engineering shortages. Back in the times of Brunel, Edison and even later technology and the people who made it happen were considered heroes of the age. Any more engineers are just tools to be used and tossed aside. The net results is that fewer young people want to get into a field where they are going to be left behind by their peers - much like cnc and libertas experienced.

This isn't a problem unique to Japan. If you want to be an engineer I would think that the best places to be are China and, possibly, India. In the rest of the world it's a good living but that's about it.

Sad how things have turned out.

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If you want to be an engineer I would think that the best places to be are China and, possibly, India.

Or any country with Oil & Gas.

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I have been in IT for over 25 years in the U.S. so I have seen the trend. We are told that the U.S. like Japan is short on IT people but I see kids coming out of college with IT degrees and can't find jobs. But at my work I see them importing their new people from India. These imported workers aren't any smarter they just work for half the pay. Japan I believe is going thru the same thing. It just makes me sick to see this next generation of college students having to get into another line of work because of this.

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OgieDoggie I agree with you. Even many of these IT engineers are not real IT engineers. They are just JLTP 3 or 4 with 6 months Diploma in IT. These people you can find in all major banks in Japan. Many of them are dispatched to Japan without any insurance cover. These people are victim of haken Companies. Funny thing, many of them never paid any TAX to government even they live and work in Japan more than 1 year and Japan is also not taking this problem seriously.

I admire these people and their living style, when they cooked and ate food with their community. These people are saving a lot in Japan even more than a Japanese person. We can learn it from these people. All major IT companies in the world hiring these cheap engineers. God help these people, as these cheap engineers are not getting right salary. No body can help American and Japanese IT engineers until government stop or ban outsourcing. Big MNC thinks only its profit.

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Don't get me started on the level of IT Engineers in japan and the world in general. Shudders.

In Japan anyone from an Operator to an Analyst is an "Engineeer". Happy to be out of that profession now(was in it for 25yrs), I did more power-point stuff than IT work when I was still employed in japan. All the company worried about was the sales figures and their reputation/image.

As for the high-skilled Chinese and Indian Engineers better nothing said. We tried to outsource some work to China only to delay the project and do it in-house. Their so-called "fluent" japanese speakers wouldn't pass JLPT 4.


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true technicians are hard to create and it takes years of experience. =the Master system works for great manufacturing brands like Mercedes and BMW.

True Engineers are hard to find, many move up to management and others start their own companies. In order for Japan to be innovative you really need both and few companies do well fostering a creative and appealing environment.

Look at what companies like Google do to find and then retain talent = and their products show it. Great people and good culture make these companies work -but management forgets that = disaster.

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Come to Jpn a few times for holidays, enjoy what interests you, but I think you wud be making a huge mistake to come & live here, chances are yr wife wudnt be able to practice medicine, its very hard for working couples with children to come here unless yr on the expat thing where everything is paid, in either case the stress will get to you sooner rather than later, visit but forget about living here unless your young & single then it cud work for you

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Have to agree with GW.

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