Foreign students struggle to find work amid pandemic

The Yomiuri Shimbunn
International students and others take part in an interview session in the Ginza district of Tokyo to land job offers.

The spread of the novel coronavirus is hampering foreign nationals’ efforts to find work in Japan, with many international students unable to secure jobs despite having a degree from a university or vocational school.

Concerns are growing that foreign nationals will stop considering Japan to be a viable option.

Graduation approaching

An interview session for foreign nationals was held in Tokyo in late January.

Seven candidates, including current students and graduates of vocational schools specializing in hotel services and tourism, were briefed on the operations of a hotel in Nagano Prefecture that was seeking for employees. This was followed by interviews hosted by Gowell Co., a Tokyo-based company that provides introductions of foreign human resources living in Japan, mainly from Asia, and interpretation for them.

Hosan MD Bilal, 30, from Bangladesh was one of the participants. He studied hotel services at a vocational school and graduated in March, but hotels have slashed hiring amid the pandemic and he has yet to find a job.

“If I can’t find work and have to return home, everything I studied in Japan will have been for nothing,” he said.

Do Thi Lan Huong, 22, of Vietnam is due to graduate from a hotel-related vocational school in March, but she also has not found a job.

An interest in Japanese anime inspired her to work in Japan, and she dreams of someday bringing her mother to Japan. With only two months to graduation, she is starting to worry.

Any job, any field

Hein Htut Lin, 25, of Myanmar finally received a job offer from an apparel company after an interview in December. The job involves managing logistics systems and he started training in January. He is to be officially hired once he changes his visa status.

He came to Japan because he loves Japanese video games and wanted to become a programmer. He graduated from an IT vocational school in March but was unable to find a job, and worked part-time while continuing to search.

He applied to or was interviewed by about 40 companies so far, including some before graduation.

“I’m satisfied just to get a job. I’ll do my best,” he said.

Negative impact on Japan

“It was always difficult for international students to find employment, but the pandemic has made it even harder,” said Gowell President Hidekazu Matsuda, 48.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
“Foreign nationals face a variety of barriers to finding employment,” said Gowell Co. President Hidezaku Matsuda.

The rapid increase in tourists from overseas before the pandemic created strong demand for foreign workers in hotels, airports, department stores and elsewhere. Companies considering overseas expansion also sought human resources that could serve as a bridge with regions planned for expansion. After entering and leaving the country was restricted due to the pandemic, however, the number of job openings plunged.

In May 2020, Gowell opened a cafe for foreign job-hunters called Gowell Town in the Ginza district of Tokyo. The cafe offers assistance for foreigners on job hunting and daily life, and hosts exchanges with Japanese students.

“If someone comes to Japan wanting to work here but returns home without finding a job, negative views of Japan could spread in their home country. Companies also need to think about how to utilize foreign nationals so they can thrive,” Matsuda said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Foreign and Japanese students talk at an exchange hosted by Gowell Co.

Fears of brain-drain

Tokyo-based Fourth Valley Concierge Corp., which helps foreign professionals find work, has held company briefings and seminars online for international students affected by the pandemic.

About 2,400 people participated in two briefings held since February last year. More events are scheduled for 2022.

President Yohei Shibasaki, 46, is concerned that prolonged border restrictions will reduce the number of international students.

Japan’s declining birthrate has created serious labor shortages, and Shibasaki said that “as fewer international students graduate from universities and other schools, there will be fewer people capable of becoming highly skilled workers. That will have a significant impact.”

Down 50,000

Foreign students come to Japan with student visas to study in universities and vocational schools. As a general rule they cannot work, but if granted permission for “activities that fall outside the status,” they can get part-time jobs for up to 28 hours per week.

The number of foreigners with student visas has declined during the pandemic. According to Justice Ministry statistics, there were about 228,000 such students at the end of June 2021, down more than 50,000 from the about 280,000 at the end of June 2020.

If foreign students want to work in Japan after graduation, they need to change their visa status.

If they find work at a company where they can use the expertise they gained at their university or vocational school, they can obtain an “engineer, specialist in humanities, international services” visa that allows family members to join them in Japan. About 283,000 people had this status as of the end of June 2021.

If they graduate but cannot find a job, they can continue job hunting with what is called a “designated activities” visa.