Japan's graduates losing faith in corporate icons

For 15 years, Sony was the company of choice for job seekers. Now, even the electronics giant has stumbled.

After a 15-year reign, Sony Corporation has lost its crown as the preferred employer for Japan's most talented university students. Once the dream workplace for every science and engineering major, the firm that gave the world the Walkman and placed Japan at the cutting edge of high-technology has now too succumbed to the country's long economic malaise.

A closely watched survey by D&L Co., a Tokyo research firm, found late last week that the carmaker Toyota was the new champion, while Sony, which is undergoing a series of radical reforms, had fallen to an ignominious third place.

The survey results speak to the changing aspirations - and heightened sense of anxiety - that many young job seekers in Japan who grew up during a protracted economic slump hold about the workplace. If Sony can stumble, they ask, where can I find job security?

Some graduates are opting for smaller, forward looking firms and are keenly aware of the implications of entering a firm with a shaky business plan. "It'll be tough to get ahead in the world unless you enter a company where the earnings are going to improve in the future, rather than a company which has good earnings now," says one Japanese university student.

Others have shed long-term career aspirations altogether, according to labor analysts. Flying in the face of the traditionally strong Japanese work ethic, young people now tend "to not enthusiastically look for work and [instead] become itinerant part-time workers or do nothing after graduation," says Reiko Kosugi, assistant research director at the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training.

Indeed, the new Japanese economy is a much tougher place for a fresh graduate than it was a few years ago. The jobless rate among 15-24 year olds is twice the national average of 5 percent, while 30 percent of new university graduates can't find work, according government figures.

While the D&L survey shows the employer preferences of university students, most graduates know only a select few will be accepted into blue chip firms like Sony and Toyota. As large companies hire fewer full-time workers during retrenchment, "the extreme difficulties encountered in job searching are making an increasing number of young people lose their motivation," says Ms. Kosugi.

Sony's fall from grace in the eyes of Japan's future business leaders is the latest slap in the face for the once seemingly invincible consumer electronics maker. Earlier this month, BusinessWeek's online edition named Sony CEO Nobuyuki Idei one of the worst managers of 2003 following a string of dismal earnings results. Wednesday, Sony reported that in the quarter ending in December, profits plunged 26 percent over the same quarter last year. Sony reputation for innovation has faded lately as it has lost the initiative to rivals such as Sharp and Matsushita's Panasonic brand in the flat screen television and DVD recorder markets. In an attempt to revive itself, Sony is cutting 20,000 jobs, or about 13 percent of its global work force.

But Sony's plight is hardly out of the ordinary for this generation of jobseekers. They have seen friends and family go through waves of corporate downsizing. Japan has been stuck in economic quicksand since they were in elementary school, and many see little point in enduring rigid working conditions, only to face pay cuts and redundancy down the road.

This pessimism, and the breakdown of the standard transition from student to working adult, leave some analysts worried over the long-term implications for Japan's future. The point of finding a stable job is not only to develop a vocational ability, "but also to foster the resolution to become a member of society," says Kosugi.

Moreover, a serious gap in incomes between the generations could cause problems in funding the coming retirement of Japan's baby boomers and rob the nation of many of the factors that have helped drive its high economic growth throughout the postwar era, says Seiji Adachi, an economist at Credit Suisse First Boston.

Younger generations can read the trendlines too. Two out of three Japanese say they have major concerns about the future, but that ratio quickly rises as the age bracket drops.

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