Fresh College Grads, Freshly Cut Grass - Ah, It Must Be April

I was having a coffee at Starbucks in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, and I noticed that every table was filled with young people wearing identical black suits. The woman sitting at the table next to me explained that she, like the others, was a college student on her way to a job interview with a potential employer.

It was a very important moment for her – and for her prospective employers. April in Japan is the season when new graduates become a central focus of Japanese companies. Unlike firms in the U.S., which generally view college recruiting as a small piece of their talent equation, most major Japanese companies consider college recruiting to be the heart and soul of their staffing efforts.

Although Japanese companies are increasingly hiring mid-career and contract staff, the core talent pool for future corporate management remains the group of employees who join the company right after graduating college. This has a profound impact on the Japanese organization and employee.

The Japanese employer has a long-term view of its talent. The hiring cycle is drawn out, with recruiting efforts beginning up to a year and a half in advance, and serious interviewing occurring a year before the new hires start in April en masse. The Japanese organization invests significant resources in training and promoting staff from within – and waits much longer than U.S. companies do to achieve payback on those investments. At the same time, the company is able to shape its workforce to its own design and, in the process, create a strong corporate culture and long tenure.

The graduating student, in turn, works hard to secure a position with a highly regarded employer. Those who aren’t able to secure an offer will be branded as incapable – a negative stigma that could last their entire careers. Those who land a position will benefit from their firm’s reputation and have a strong identity as part of an incoming class. They can remain secure in the knowledge that the company will train and care for them, and that they have a chance to move up the corporate ladder over time.

This contrasts sharply with college recruiting in the U.S. Most U.S. employers seek employees who can be effective quickly (tested through a summer internship, if possible), with the assumption that many will move on in two-three years. Students see the first job as merely a first step in a career that will take them to many different employers. They crave early responsibility and work that will facilitate subsequent career advancement, eagerly testing the market for the best offer.

The contrast between U.S. and Japanese styles brings another April tradition to mind for me: the start of baseball season. The Japanese recruits, like rookie players, show up in their uniforms, hoping they’ll land a spot on a good team as the start of a promising career. In contrast, the U.S. grads are more like free agents, looking for the best offer and hoping for a starring role, yet confident that if things don’t work out, they’ll have more chances later.

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