The Warehouse: Part One - Impressions
While I mainly focus on jobs for knowledge workers, there are nevertheless many other types of jobs available for foreigners in Japan. Today I'd like to focus on a low-end position and ways to segue this into something better over time.
Thanks to the current economic boom, there are now more jobs than people, not just in IT and sales, but also at the lower end of the skills spectrum. Thus, many smaller firms are suffering from lack of able-bodied workers for manufacturing, building construction, and logistics. I will cover in a later article how you get to work in a factory. However, today I want to talk about opportunities for lower-skilled bilingual foreigners in logistics.
Why logistics?The simple reason is that more and more foreign importers are bringing goods into Japan on their own, rather than through Japanese distribution partners as before. They then direct market or sell the products through their own sales outlets. The range of things you can buy from foreign suppliers is quite impressive and ranges from fashion garments, toys, cosmetics, drugs, medical equipment, building supplies, and food, through to computer hardware and software, furniture, auto parts, media, and nutraceuticals. If you think about it, the pace of change and globalization of consumer goods in the Japanese market over the last 10 years is quite astounding.
The problem with all these foreign firms is that they insist on using global best practice for their receiving and distribution operations, and very few Japanese-only logistics companies are equipped to meet this demand. The most common problems encountered are in tracking and accounting for stored products in real time, and being able to match handling and packaging quality with price. The answer to getting these metrics right is usually seen as being IT-related - and it is true that a global-class warehouse management application can bring order to an otherwise busy warehouse.
However, another important factor, and perhaps a critical one with smaller foreign importers is close and continual communication of logistics information as problems inevitably occur and consequently get resolved. Smaller firms are more likely to be handling limited amounts of product on a frequently changing basis, and thus need a high level of flexibility, tracking, and troubleshooting capability. While the bigger players can use the excellent systems of massive airfreight/logistics companies like DHL, the small lot players are stuck with mainly old fashioned Japanese logistics firms. Such firms lack basic English language ability and have little understanding of what international best practice is. Thus there is an opportunity for foreigners willing to work within the rigid environment of a Japanese warehousing firm to get in at the ground floor of the logistics industry.
Now, I know that working in a warehouse, just like a factory, isn't going to appeal to a lot of people, and I can't blame them. Actually I started my work career as a teenager with a 3 1/2 year stint at a factory in New Zealand and I hated every minute of it. It got hot and sweaty in the summers and icy cold in the winters. The work was very physical and the pay was hopeless. However, doing that stint gave me both fortitude and a great insight into how labor groups work and how management can make or break production line targets. It also taught me how humility and humbleness can be a powerful form of leadership. Indeed, the famous Japanese work ethic and management philosophy was forged in just such an environment.
So if nothing else, you might want to consider a year or so in such a rigid environment as being a core Japanese life experience - helping you to understand how this society works. Or if you want to give some personal meaning to the experience, consider it the equivalent of spending time out at a Zen temple! Only, instead of getting rapped on the shoulders by a monk wielding a Keisaku to make sure your posture is perfect, you get verbally rapped by a detail-obsessed foreperson. I believe that the result is the same: you learn self discipline and your Japanese language skills will probably improve by leaps and bounds as well.
Next week I cover one such logistics company, and the strategy for using the experience as a stepping stone into a far more rewarding career.