I had an interesting question from a reader worried about whether she would be too old to start applying for jobs after spending many years acquiring three languages and an advanced professional qualification. While it is true that companies in Japan prefer younger employees if they are going to take on someone with limited work experience, the attraction of fluent, multiple regional language skills is so great at present (remembering that unemployment is still very low) that employers will make concessions when they see someone who has really tried to improve themselves.
I graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Economics in 2004. However, I drifted around for a period of time, studying Japanese and traveling. As such, I only have two years of full-time work experience (in translation and interpretation) to date, including my current contract assignment with a traditional Japanese Multinational Corporation (MNC) in Japan. I am fluent in English, Mandarin, and Japanese (JLPT1).
In terms of career goals, I want a more challenging and faster-paced career than my Japanese employer can offer. I'd like the chance to have my own projects and over a period of time, to move into a managerial position. Specifically, I'd like to become an internal auditor for an MNC.
The problem is that after two years of interpretation and translation assignments, I find myself lacking in hard skills like professional qualifications and industry-specific experience. A jack of all trades is not really marketable in the long run. Therefore, I have been thinking about going for further education, such as a Master's Degree in Accountancy, next year after my current contract expires. This means that I would graduate in 2010.
My concern is: at the age of 28, and still without any actual auditing/accountancy experience, do you think I would be "employable or desirable" in the eyes of hiring managers?
As a trilingual with a fresh degree in a technical discipline, and particularly as someone who speaks three of the most widely-used languages in North Asia, I imagine that employers will be very interested in you. Yes, 28 is a bit older than most companies would be thinking of for fresh grads, but you do have some work experience and the language skills and potential Accountancy degree are very compelling. Probably you will just need to ensure that you interview with a variety of Japanese and foreign companies (don't get despondent if you get some rejections) to find the right fit.
A Japanese employer is probably going to want you for your language skills, so you may have to barter a bit with the hiring manager to get a career plan that lands you in internal audit. Make sure you get any undertakings IN WRITING, because the bartering will mean that you are moving outside the normal career development program. The good news is that larger Japanese firms are starting to bulk up on internal auditors, due to Japanese SOX (J-SOX) - a new set of corporate compliance regulations for publicly listed companies that will start kicking in this year (and continue for the next couple of years). Further, for those companies that have international operations, the whole issue of compliance with US-based SOX and incoming regulations of other countries is just another layer of headaches.
The other good news is that because J-SOX derives from US SOX, you will probably find that many Japanese companies' internal auditing departments are staffed with people who have had foreign work experience. This means that if you can find and meet such people (a good place to start is to attend internal auditor forums and events), you will have a strong chance of finding one who wants to apprentice you into the team.
Foreign firms are also going to be very interested in you, especially those companies which are operating under a regulatory body, regardless of whether they are listed or not. I would include banks, securities firms, insurance companies, some trading companies, accounting and consulting firms, services companies that write lots of international business, and others. Depending on what sort of companies you apply to, if they are in the financial sector, you should go straight in as a junior applicant for the accounting, internal audit, or financial controller team. Whatever role they initially assign you to, after 18-24 months, you should find yourself working on internal audit and/or internal compliance issues - which will start making you valuable as an employee. Once you are an integral part of the team, you can start negotiating for whatever parts of the job description that are still missing.
Probably what you are going to find is that you will get accounting position offers right from Day One, but hints of something better (i.e., more specific to your goal) at some of the larger firms. This means you will need to decide whether to hold out or to go for the second-best position and work your way up. If you do get a hint of something promising, you might want to offer yourself up for an internship or a part - time position to get started. Again, once they find that you can do the job, you'll become valuable and will be upgraded accordingly.
If you think that accounting might be interesting, and certainly multilingual accountants are in demand, you might also want to take the Japanese Boki accounting exam at the same time as doing your Master's. I've heard that the first three levels are not so difficult and can be done part-time. If you're really eager, you might also consider doing your CPA exam. Keep in mind that this will be quite time consuming, so you may want to do this instead of starting on your Master's. Whatever your choice, be assured that you already possess many valuable skills that make you an attractive candidate to employers.