Terrie's Job Tips -- Translator Seeks a Career Change

Disruption in the Job Market causes different reactions in different people. For most of us it makes us more conservative and we're happy to have a job at all. For employers it all but halts hiring, and for recruiters it spells hard times and lay-offs. Whatever the reaction, the result is job market stagnation and an indefinite postponement of career development plans. Some people take recessions off to go get a new degree, while others start thinking seriously about building up a portfolio of experience so as to be ready when the market frees up again. Today's letter from a reader represents someone thinking ahead.

Reader: I am currently working in Japan for a translation and documentation company as a translator. Recently I've been considering moving on and finding either a better paid translation job, or finding a completely new line of work. I wanted to ask for some advice about what types of jobs or professions might be appropriate for me here in Japan? I'm currently working as a keiyaku shashain (contract employee), and receive an annual salary of around JPY4m a year, with no bonuses. Ideally, given my advanced language skills and deep knowledge of technology, I would like to get a job paying around JPY5.5m a year. Can you help me?
Terrie: Honestly speaking there are almost no resources for general career counseling for mid-career people in Japan, whether you're Japanese or otherwise. For some reason this is a totally ignored area of the education market. Therefore, to change gears in your career, you pretty much need to make up your mind what area you're interested in, then find mentors to tell you how they did it. Connect through local chambers of commerce to find these people. I think that what you're going to find is that almost all of them took a big step back in salary and position to get into their new field of endeavor, and also in many cases they went back to school in their home country, to gain the theoretical background needed. At very least you might want to look at a local or online university.

Anyway, looking first at your current field, what you're up against in the translation market in March 2009 is the fact that there are many freelancers around with not enough work. So, although they may earn more on a per page basis and thus over the period of a month better income, companies don't have to care for and or feed them during the down periods.

My motto is that it is better to get a lower salary than none at all. I don't know of many companies who maintain in-house translators other than pharmaceutical firms. I also don't know of many jobs in the broader writing field that pay well (unless the person is self-employed). There are some, but the holders of those jobs are not job-hoppers, so the vacancies are few.

So if you want to earn more, either you go freelance, which I understand would be too unpredictable for your family situation (wife and kids) and therefore I think your best bet is to move to a completely different type of work, but based on your language skills. You should try to move at the same price you're getting now – which would represent a modest investment by the new employer, then let the excellence of your work speak for itself in terms of future pay raises. Given your technology interest, software would be one possible field to explore – starting with documentation and testing, then graduating to coding and eventually system architecting. There are loads of foreign software companies trying to break into the Japanese market and who need knowledgeable bilingual resources.

In general, bilingual technical roles are always in demand by foreign firms, even during a recession. So if you're serious about making a major transition, you'll want to check out some of the following careers. Again, you're going to need education and possibly an unpaid internship to break in. But in the long run your bilingual abilities and intelligence will see you through to a respectable salary and job security. The areas in greatest demand at present but not in any particular order are: i) IT infrastructure support, ii) Software development, iii) Bilingual accounting, tax, and compliance (think J-Sox and tax planning), iv) Paralegal work, v) Web site administration (and some limited design), vi) Import/export business development, and vii) PR (but hard to get in to). There are of course many other fields besides these, but this list will give you an idea of where the demand is.