A common question by teachers coming off the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program is what sort of careers they can build for themselves once they hit the job market here in Japan, versus going back home. Do they stay in language teaching? Yes, that's an option, but doesn't really create a career unless you're willing to study to acquire more academic qualifications.
Instead, most people look at moving to a new position outside the teaching space. The trick, then, is to look at the qualities that flow from the experience of your having been a JET. Firstly there is the quality of being able to communicate intangible ideas and concepts to other people. Secondly, there are Japanese-language skills, particularly in terms of speaking and listening. Thirdly, there is the ability to thrive as a fish out of water, and take on new challenges without folding under the pressure.
On the face of it, these three qualities would point to careers in areas requiring lots of human communication, doing it in Japan, and either blazing new trails or working on the teams of new businesses to build something new and different. To confirm just where these qualities might take a JET, I went to Linked In, a handy social networking site, and typed in the search terms "Japan" and "JET". I then reviewed all the people who popped up with those relevant terms and looked at the types of jobs they were doing.
Although my "review" was just a cursory one, what quickly became obvious was that there are many successful JETs working both for themselves and also as senior managers in foreign companies in Japan. Most of them seem to be in HR and recruiting, sales, management (a progression from sales, typically), consulting, technology-linked learning (e-learning), advertising, marketing, and similar fields. So I think we can establish that JETs can get good jobs, and that they tend to gravitate to opportunities where you need to communicate and motivate people, either colleagues or customers.
So how did they get there? How did they make the transition from teacher or coordinator, to manager of the sales division of a large foreign company? Again, Linked In provides some clues, since most of the ex-JETs listed there give their career histories. For many people, the entry to the corporate world was through sales or as a recruiter at one of Tokyo's many smaller recruiting firms. Recruiting can be a difficult first job, especially because it is well known for being a "sink or swim" environment. But nonetheless, for those people who made the cut, they either went on to become successful recruiters, often setting up their own practices, or they were picked up by larger companies in other sectors, to join as an HR or sales professional.
Unfortunately, conditions in the recruiting industry are even tougher now than what they usually are, because of the slump in hiring of staff by foreign firms. There are a number of already experienced recruiters out in the market that a JET would have to compete against. I expect that this situation will continue for the rest of 2009 and the field will open up again towards the end of the year, as larger corporations start to recover. However, even though there is extra competition for positions, I would still encourage JET job seekers to contact some of the larger firms to see if they want researchers and other entry-level staff.
In doing my research, what I found interesting was that some people were able to jump straight into a junior position at a well respected consulting, sales, or IT firm. When you look at this group, you will find that they are almost all very bilingual and have been either CIRs or appear to have strong presentation and organizational skills. I suspect, too, that those people had taken the time to get to know existing employees at those firms, and therefore had the inside track on possible vacancies.
This is what networking is all about.