Japan lags behind as international race for retraining intensifies

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TOKYO – A fierce battle is unfolding between nations determined to ensure post-pandemic economic growth, centered on professional retraining.

While COVID-19 has forced countries to impose social and other restrictions, the digital transformation has only accelerated. Now that some countries are emerging from the worst of the pandemic, workers will need to learn new skills, or their economies will fall down the ladders of productivity and international competitiveness.

Backward countries like Japan face another battle – winning public support for the kind of labor revolution that will allow them to catch up with the leaders.

Professional retraining is correlated with productivity. A country that has a higher rate of people participating in job-related education programs than other countries is more productive per hour, according to data released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Northern European countries like Denmark and Sweden, which have a ratio of over 50%, rank among the best in terms of productivity.

Japan and other countries should “review its employment policy from the point of view of growth strategy,” said Hisashi Yamada, vice president of the Japan Research Institute.

Sluggish economies such as those of Japan and Italy could start late in post-COVID competition – unless they establish a mechanism to deliver the skills needed for improved productivity to a range of workers.

The efforts of northern European nations are remarkable. One of the keys is that they advance the vocational rehabilitation programs established through cooperation between government, workers and management.

In Denmark, vocational schools are run mainly by local governments, with their curricula jointly determined by unions and employers. In IT-related schools, trade unions specializing in specific jobs, such as engineers, and other concerned parties update curricula almost every year to keep up with technology trends.

In Sweden, practical education programs are also determined by public-private partnerships. Students in these professional programs spend more than 25% of their training hours in a company. Laws allow companies to lay off workers relatively easily, but specialized organizations provide effective support for re-employment.

The Scandinavian nation, its mobile workers and their ever-changing skills have allowed companies like music streamer Spotify to grow and prosper.

As digital transformation accelerates and requires new skills, the need for training becomes evident.

In January 2020, the World Economic Forum drew up a plan to retrain one billion people by 2030 and equip them with skills adapted to information technology and other sectors. Companies such as Salesforce.com in the United States and Infosys in India will help promote the plan.

Japan is lagging behind in this trend. The rate of workers participating in recycling programs in Japan is 35%, 5 percentage points below the OECD average. Japan’s productivity is about half that of northern European countries and ranks 21st among the 37 OECD member countries.

Many Japanese companies consider their employees’ IT skills to be “inadequate,” according to a joint survey by Nikkei and the doda job change service operated by leading staffing company Persol Career. Many employers also point out the insufficient skills of their employees in research and development.

Companies have started to take countermeasures. Last year, Fujitsu posted 9,000 educational content online that its employees can use for free.

“I will be left behind unless I acquire skills in areas beyond the job given to me,” said a Fujitsu employee in his 40s, explaining his participation in the program.

However, many workers are not able to use the training programs in their company. When asked in the joint survey whether it was possible to learn new skills in their current job, 28% of those surveyed with an annual income of less than 3 million yen ($ 27,412) responded with yes, compared to 54% of those earning more than 10 million. yen per year.

“I can’t even afford to consider what I should learn,” said an office worker in her 30s, unable to hide her insecurity. In the past, she didn’t have time to study because she worked 80 hours overtime a month. In her new business, her overtime has been cut in half, but she is struggling to attend classes as her income has dropped by 1.5 million yen.

Official support is important in reducing income disparities, but Japan is lacking in this area. Vocational training programs provided by state and local communities are prepared primarily by bureaucrats and tend to differ from the needs of employers. Discrepancies are common; workers wishing to use their computer experience may be recommended for construction related training.

Why is formal vocational training lacking in Japan? Because, said Hiroko Okudaira, associate professor at Doshisha University, “cooperation between government, workers and management is inadequate.”



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