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Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2005

THE ZEIT GIST

Finding a job after Japan

Thinking about going home, but stuck for what to do next? Melanie Burton talked to former expats about segueing back into the workforce, and asked recruiters for some tips


Rachel spent 3 1/2 years in Tokyo working for one of the big five conversation schools, before returning to the U.S. and working for the same company as a recruiter up and down the West Coast of the U.S.

"I'm proud of myself for leaving Japan, because I think it gets to a certain point where it's a heck of a lot easier to stay than it is to go," she said.

McKinnon advised returnees to "go home with a plan."

"If you're sure you want to leave, then make it convenient . . . update your resume, apply for some things online before heading home. Teaching English is so common in Japan, we tend to forget how impressive it can be to employers back home. Don't sell yourself short."

That's not to say it will be easy.

Tom Griffin worked for Nova for two years near Fujisawa, also writing part-time. Although his first novel has just been published, he said returning to find work in his native Australia was extremely difficult.

"If you're serious about wanting to return and find a good job, do not stay in Japan teaching for too long," he said. "The longer you live in Japan teaching, the older the qualifications you have get and the harder it is to find work. Two years in Japan following University (is equal to a) 2-year-old degree that you have not used."

After three months looking for work, using up his savings and borrowing from his parents, Griffin finally found a job at an Internet retailer.

"As I was in the process of releasing my novel, I just wanted a job to pay the rent while I worked on my book. I tried all avenues from office work to travel consulting. I found no one really cares if you have taught in Japan or even if you can speak the language. I took the first job I was offered, which was at the Web site company," he said.

Griffin advised bringing some cash home with you to lubricate your looking. "If you don't or can't live with your folks make sure you've saved enough money to live and pay rent with."

In hindsight, he recommends starting to look for work two months before you return.

"If you have studied a university course from your own country while in Japan, nice work. You will find it much easier to get a job. This is one thing I wish I had done."

Di Pass is the director of recruitment agency, 360 Services, in Sydney. Pass said that "getting work for any graduate is just plain hard work. There is a lot of knocking on doors. They have to be proactive -- it doesn't just come to them. We would be trying to give them advice on how to make their international experience look good on a resume."

But the challenges of finding work can also yield opportunity. Michael Douglas worked for Nova in Ibaraki Prefecture in 2002 and 2003. He now runs his own art marketing business and works casually at a scuba diving shop in Perth, Australia.

"I think a stint teaching in Japan is looked upon positively by most employers, but it is hardly a rarity these days and I don't think it gives you a significant edge over other candidates," he said.

Douglas made it to "the finish line of lengthy interview processes" a few times, but missed out, "despite the fact that all my potential employers were interested in hearing a little about my time in Japan."

As for saving for his return to work, Douglas said, "Since I saved a good dose of cash in Japan, I guess it hindered my return to work because I had the money to avoid it for a while."

Look beyond the ads

When job hunting, Douglas took the traditional paths regarding job applications -- mainly the Internet and newspapers. "I later found out that I was competing with 80 percent of job seekers for only 5 percent of jobs.

"Also, if a business is advertising through the newspaper then it is usually a last resort for them and they are going to get their money's worth by interviewing as many candidates as possible. (It's) very competitive and the odds are dismal."

After coming up against the wall several times, Douglas began looking at other options. "This ultimately encouraged me to start my own business and I was able to secure an (Australian) government grant through a sponsored New Enterprise Initiative Scheme (NEIS scheme)."

To place someone who has spend a couple of years teaching English overseas, the Sydney recruiter, Pass said, "First we would look at the big picture. What did they study, do they have any other work experience? Do they know what they want to do next?"

Douglas also emphasizes, "First get a good idea of what you want to do." Being proactive is the way to go, and approaching the kinds of places you want to work. "Send out letters of interest, regardless of whether they're looking for staff or not, and take any opportunity for work experience," he advised.

Briton Lewis Miller was in Japan for almost three years, working at two conversation schools. He then continued to Australia, where he got a job as a switchboard operator through a recruitment agency.

He stressed the importance of taking time to find the right job. "A lot of people panic when they return home and rush into a fairly crap job just to get some cash. It's worth saving up before coming back so (people) can adequately fund themselves while job hunting. Others might move back in with their parents. That's a bad move in my opinion as it puts you in a comfort zone and it gets harder to get out."

Transferable skills

Pass described working in Japan as a first step for graduates.

"The next step is what are they (the employers) looking for and the transferable skills (from English teaching)," she said.

"(English teaching) is not immediately transferable on its own," Pass said, adding that job-hunters must emphasize "what it has done for them, and how."

"They have demonstrated they can leave their comfort zone and cope with a different culture and manage themselves, that they are adaptable and somewhat tenacious. There is a range of things it could prepare them for. (They have proven) they are independent they can take a challenge."

Kerrina Thorogood, from England, worked as a JET for two years and another two at a private English-teaching school. She now works as a corporate fundraiser for Breast Cancer Awareness, with such big-name clients as Warner. She said she got her break working as an account manager for Invest Japan, which helps British companies set up in Japan.

For those returning with language ability, "it's a good idea to contact one of the Japanese recruitment agencies . . . What I found, however, was that most jobs in Japanese companies don't actually allow you to use much of your Japanese (as they want to speak English) and you're not really given any of your own responsibilities or allowed to take the lead on anything.

"There's also a real glass ceiling as most of the positions above you are taken by Japanese salarymen. I recommend working in a Japanese company for a bit but not as a career . . . that's just what I found though."

Second thoughts

But what if you don't want to go home yet?

Richard Bysouth is president of Career Cross, a recruitment agency specializing in bi- and multilingual staff based here. He said there are a lot of bilingual jobs out there, "and with the Japanese economy recovering, (jobs are) just going to keep growing."

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test run by the Japanese government gives a fairly reliable indicator as to whether a person can speak Japanese, he said, "but the interviewers will decide at the end of the day, whether (the applicant) can speak and communicate at the required level."

But Bysouth admitted that a recent grad with just a couple of years experience at an "eikawa" was very unlikely to get hired. The best bet, he said "is to go home, get some experience and come back."

Industries looking for bilingual Japanese speakers are IT, business, finance and sales -- particularly jobs that rely on personality or technical ability.

He said anything on a resume might catch his eye -- "it might be from years ago" -- but "you need to have something special, otherwise they'll just hire bilingual Japanese."

So perhaps those concerned should keep in mind that after conquering Japan, with a little preparation and a proactive approach it can all be downhill from here.

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