I was asked by CLAIR, the organizing agency behind the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program which puts English teachers into public schools all over Japan, to be a career counselor at their annual conference for departing teachers. As an employer, I was very happy to have this chance, because it allowed me to meet and talk to around 20 people who were coming off contract periods of 2 to 5 years, and many of whom had made the effort to assimilate into their host country. I was also happy as an HR "promoter" for jobs for foreigners in Japan, as I was privy to a nice cross-section of what is going on in the minds of job seekers who are making some major personal decisions.
I wrote some years ago in this column about the JET program, stating that I particularly liked dealing with Coordinators for International Relations (CIRs), a 10% subgroup of JET participants. CIRs are attractive to employers because they go into the JET program with an existing knowledge of Japanese language, which becomes well polished after the program finishes. They also have a rather chaotic job managing events and relationships that puts them in very good stead for dealing with business opportunities later. CIRs are thus typically very bilingual and very organized. To be honest, I didn't have the same positive impression about some of the non-CIR JETs.
I changed my opinion last week, however.
What I found this time around, was that almost to a person, the JETs leaving the program have been much more focused on taking advantage of their time here, and in including that experience in their future careers. The level of spoken Japanese is much better, and the awareness of the need to start building human networks and business/human skills has been much higher. I saw very little of the party culture that was evident a few years earlier.
This is a very positive step forward, and probably has a lot to do with reports I've received of CLAIR becoming a lot more selective about who they bring into the program and why. I think it's also a reflection of the fact that people are starting to realize that they only get one chance to be a JET, and that it is an experience that should be used fully.
The day after the counseling, I also did a speech to the Australian and New Zealand participants at the conference, and the turn-out was around 100 people. I asked the audience who would be returning home, versus who wanted to stay in Japan. About 30% said they were planning to stay. I came away thinking, "What a great human resources pipe CLAIR is creating for Japan."
While the quality of JETs from a work perspective now seems infinitely better, some of the same problems as a few years ago still persist – the most obvious of which is the fact that most people don't realize that they have to plan well ahead to make the most of their Japan experience. It might be asking a bit much for someone to start a career plan as soon as they jump into the deep end of a JET position, especially if they happen to land in a countryside area where there are few other foreigners, but certainly within a few months, a plan should indeed be evolving. People should be focusing on building their networks and learning skills that will go alongside their language abilities.
In fact, I would define what JETs can get of the Japan experience as three key things:
1) Language practice – anyone learning to speak colloquial Japanese will always be a prime candidate for a Japan-related job in the future. Scratching the surface rather than fluency doesn't cut it.
2) Developing a personal network. The types of jobs that ex-JETs are well qualified include sales, marketing, and business development for exports into the Japan market by companies from their home country. Having a personal network makes business leads appear and gel much quicker, and of course give you a huge advantage over other job candidates if they are relevant to the company you are seeking to work for.
3) Lastly, you get a chance to put in some concentrated study to help you develop a career. Being a JET means that you can somewhat regulate your time (yes, I realize that everyone wants a piece of you at the start) once things settle down, and that you can use this time to do some online courses, or to join special interest groups within Japan so as to pick up new skills or to hone a hobby. I have mentioned previously a JET who liked computers and was a Users Group organizer and set up their web server. He went on to start an engineering career with my firm, based on that experience, and now works in a very senior IT role in a major U.S. investment bank.