In Japan, a scramble for new workers disrupts traditional hiring

Tetsushi Kajimoto

TOKYO(Reuters) - It’s a rite of spring in Japan: Major corporations hire fresh university graduates en masse every April, starting them all at the same salary with assurances of rising pay and lifetime employment.

An employee of Mercari Inc. Takashi Murakami, 23, poses for a photograph at the company office in Tokyo, Japan, December 5, 2018. Picture taken December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

일자리 넘치는 日…'4월 채용' 관행 깨고 연말 모집

일손 부족에 인재 선점 경쟁

대학 2~3학년 학생들까지

정규직 약속하고 인턴 고용

   일본 대기업들이 대학 졸업시즌인 4월에 신입사원을 뽑는 ‘벚꽃 채용’ 관행을 깨고 연초 채용에 나섰다. 구인난으로 우수 인재 확보에 어려움이 생기자 채용 시기를 앞당긴 것이다.

28일 로이터통신에 따르면 전자상거래회사 라쿠텐, 이동통신사 소프트뱅크, 네이버 자회사 라인 등 일본 주요 기업은 연말연시를 기해 신입사원 공채를 시작하고 있다. 중고 전문 전자상거래회사인 메루카리는 대학 2~3학년 학생도 졸업 후 정규직 취업을 조건으로 내걸고 인턴으로 채용하는 등 ‘입도선매’에 나섰다.

광고회사 사이버에이전트 등 일부 기업은 원활한 인력 채용을 위해 4월 신입사원 채용에 맞춘 정기 급여 일정을 없앴다. 구인난이 심해지면서 연공서열에 근거해 임금을 지급하는 관행도 사라지고 있다. 높은 임금을 주고서라도 우수한 신입사원을 뽑으려는 기업이 많아진 것이다.

일본 기업들은 지난 수십 년간 대학 졸업시즌에 맞춰 정기 채용을 했다. 매년 3~4월 신입사원 공채를 시작하는 것이 일반적이었다. 조금 일찍 인재 확보에 나서는 기업들은 10월께 면접을 해 신입사원을 선발해 놓고 이듬해 4월 정식으로 채용한다.

일본 기업들이 정기 공채 시즌을 3~4개월 앞당긴 것은 다른 기업에 우수 인재를 빼앗기지 않기 위해서다. 그만큼 일자리 사정이 좋다는 방증이다. 일본 총무성은 지난달 실업률이 2.5%로 집계됐다고 이날 발표했다. 전월보다 0.1%포인트 높아졌지만 여전히 ‘완전 고용’ 수준이다. 지난달 취업자 수는 6709만 명으로 전년 동기보다 157만 명 증가했다. 총무성은 “25년 만에 가장 낮은 실업률을 유지하고 있다”며 “지난달 실업률이 소폭 오른 것은 더 좋은 일자리로 이직하려는 사람이 늘었기 때문”이라고 설명했다.

후생노동성이 발표한 지난달 유효 구인배율(구직자 대비 구인자 비율)은 전월보다 0.01포인트 상승한 1.63으로 집계됐다. 구직자 1명당 1.63개 일자리가 있다는 뜻이다.

김형규 기자 한국경제

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But lately, some companies, including Rakuten (4755.T), SoftBank (4726.T) and Line Corp (3938.T), are breaking with that tradition, signing up new employees with coveted technical skills months earlier - and paying them more than other new recruits.


As competition for workers grows in Japan’s shrinking labor pool, traditional seniority and group dynamics are giving ground to the more individualized, merit-based employment system found in the West.

It is a welcome sign for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government and the central bank, which have been pushing for a more flexible labor market that would boost wages and revive consumption.

Takashi Murakami, a 23-year-old producer at Mercari (4385.T), which developed a popular flea market app, says seniority-based pay and lifetime employment are relics.

“I’m grateful that the company seems to value me with pretty good pay,” he said. “I already got a pay hike after joining the company, which motivated me to work even harder. Merit-based pay is more fitting to the times.”

In recent years, Mercari said, it has been hiring college students throughout the year to grab workers with needed skills. The company even offers jobs to some second-year or third-year students.

Mercari also has a program called “Mergrads” to provide internships and training to improve new graduates’ skills.

And since April, it started offering higher pay to some job candidates with skills in information technology engineering and computer programming, said Ayano Okuda of Mercari, who is in charge of hiring new graduates. She declined to discuss the company’s pay scale.

“The competition is surely heating up,” she said. “We judge each individual’s ability and offer them attractive salaries reflecting their skills.”


For decades, Japan’s traditional spring hirings underpinned the economy and provided a clear corporate and social ladder, grounded in - and reinforcing - the cultural emphasis on loyalty and conformity.

Under Japan’s often choreographed business practices, the Keidanren, the largest business lobby, had a “voluntary” timetable that many companies followed: Start recruiting new employees on March 1, begin job interviews with fourth-year students on June 1 and informally offer jobs on Oct. 1 - six months before graduation.

Labour ministry data show the entry-level salary stands at about 200,000 yen ($1,775) a month, compared with roughly 30,000 yen in 1968, or 130,000 yen in today’s money.

Demand for workers is stronger now than it has been in decades; there are 1.62 jobs available per applicant, nearly a 44-year high.

In response, the Keidanren decided to ditch its timetable guidelines by spring 2021, meaning member companies are expected to follow them until then.

But more companies, particularly in “new economy” industries such as technology and e-commerce, have adopted much more flexible hiring practices, including offering select employees higher pay.

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Internet advertising firm CyberAgent Inc (4751.T) scrapped its uniform starting pay scale in April.

Now it offers annual starting salaries ranging from 4.5 million yen ($40,000) to 7.2 million yen ($64,000) or more for IT engineers, who account for about 40 percent of its 5,000-person workforce.

“We face stiff competition in securing able workers,” said Yuko Ishida of CyberAgent.

That means some young, incoming employees are paid more than their older co-workers. CyberAgent pays exclusively based on ability without taking seniority into account, Ishida said.

“Our competitors are also offering better salaries for high-quality workers, so we believe we can attract able workers by offering appropriate salaries,” she said.

Although some say Japan is long overdue for a shift toward a more flexible, merit-based employment system, it could upset long-standing social order.

“If it spreads throughout corporate Japan, it would mean a collapse of Japan’s employment system,” said Hisashi Yamada, a senior economist at Japan Research Institute and an expert on labor issues.

“That would cause a disparity among workers, causing uneven distribution of work and loss of motivation among those who feel left behind,” he said.

To sustain long-term growth, he said, companies will need to balance maintaining “in-house order” with rewarding performance and valued skills, while the government must step up efforts to make Japan’s job market more flexible.


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