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Friday, May 5, 2006

NEETs get career help, but at a price

Live-in programs prove successful but the cost is too high for many

Staff writers

At first, Tatsuaki Omura thought no job was right for him so he didn't apply for anything permanent after graduating from vocational school in 1992.

News photo
Tatsuaki Omura (center) thins apple trees at Shimokubo Orchard in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, during a NEET training program last May.

He started off doing various part-time jobs, including working for a shipping company. But in 1996, he began spending most of his time at home. He became captain of his neighborhood soccer team, but it didn't make the world seem less alien or his resume look less blank.

"After a while, my friends stopped talking about their jobs when they were with me," said Omura, 34.

"I felt numb. I felt I had no right to live," he said, remembering the crushing self-doubt and depression he suffered when he turned 32.

Then he entered a job-training program run by nonprofit Sodateage Net in Tachikawa, western Tokyo. It helped him turn his life around, and he now works as a counselor for the group.

The labor market may be improving as the economy recovers, but many young people do not seem to be benefiting from it.

Some, like Omura, seek help and end up in full-time jobs after a few years. However, social workers worry that help is going only to those young people with parents who can pay for it.

People aged between 15 and 34 who are not engaged in employment, education or training -- NEETs -- reached a record-high of about 640,000 in 2004, up from 480,000 in 1999 and 400,000 in 1993, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. NEETs in Japan tend to be "hikikomori," or young shut-ins.

Politicians and experts are worried about the rising number of NEETs because, as the population ages, the young will have a greater responsibility to keep the health, pension and welfare systems afloat.

The government has a re-education program for NEETS. It put 980 million yen into it in fiscal 2005, and between last July and March, 20 private schools, nonprofit organizations and other youth support groups ran live-in programs, outlined by the government, for 446 NEETs to "learn discipline in their daily lives, become career-conscious and participate in vocational training," according to the funding program description.

But even with the subsidy, a typical three-month program costs a participant an average of 270,000 yen.

Parents who foot the bill have said they got their money's worth.

The Yokohama Modern Apprenticeship Center, run by K2 International Japan Ltd., a group that helps young people become independent, has seen about 80 percent of its program participants get full- or part-time jobs, or go to school, since it started the government-backed program in October.

"It's important to separate the participants from their parents," and give them a chance to think about their careers and lives away from them, said Mami Iwamoto, head of operations at the center.

"Kids may hate to take advice from their parents, but they listen when it comes from other adults."

About 20 people between the ages of 16 and 35 now live in the four dorms. They get up at 7 a.m., clean their rooms, and then go to lectures on communication skills and career development.

The people who stick to the program start work experience after one month. They work in the Y-MAC office or for local businesses, to get used to being in a working environment.

"When I lived with my parents, they did everything for me," said a man from Kanagawa Prefecture who has been living in one of the dorms since February. "Here, I have many things to do. I'm on the shift to make breakfast."

The 23-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had become afraid of talking to others and had been a shut-in at home for three years before moving into the dorm.

Sodateage Net, which gets its funding from private sponsors, only charges participants in its job training program 30,000 yen to register and 40,000 yen a month.

It is still prohibitively expensive for many people.

"I know the fee means we can only help a tiny segment of those who need help," said Kei Kudo, chairman of Sodateage's board. "But this is the absolute lowest we can go."

Kudo said he tries to help young people who cannot pay the group's program fees by referring them to other programs, including work programs funded by other nonprofit organizations and municipalities.

The program offers support along with jobs on farms and in local companies. The group takes a small percentage of the participants' wages and tries to encourage the young people to leave the program by telling them how they would make more money if they were on their own.

Kudo said a positive effect of the program fee is to help screen out those young people whose families lack the strong commitment necessary to see the program through.

"We ask parents to promise they won't give in to their kids if they say they don't want to come any more," he said. "Parental commitment is absolutely crucial."

The program is currently full, with 50 participants, and the results have been positive. Ninety-five percent of the participants had regular jobs that paid at least 150,000 yen a month within a year of entering the program.

NEETs are characterized, at best, as oversensitive, and, at worst, spoiled. But their problems also have economic roots.

The shut-ins are in part victims of the employment system, according to Reiko Kosugi, a research director at the government-affiliated Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training.

The surge in the number of NEETs was noticed only when job openings for high school and college graduates began falling in recent years.

As the economy recovers, there should be more job openings and the number of NEETs should fall. However, firms often only want to hire young people right after they graduate.

"Japanese companies hire new graduates and train them to become capable workers," Kosugi said. "Under this conventional practice, if someone fails to get a job straight out of school, it becomes difficult for them to get a full-time job."

Kudo added: "I have not met a single person who said he or she just didn't want to work. Working may be painful, but not having work is more painful still."

One of the the biggest problems is how to find those NEETs who want help but cannot afford the expensive support programs.

In 2002, about 30 percent of NEETs who had completed junior high school and roughly 20 percent of high school graduates lived with parents who made less than 3 million yen a year, according to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

Neither the public nor private sectors have been able to reach these people, Kosugi said.

Sodateage Net's Omura said once those young people are found, it would not take much to help them.

"All these kids need is a place where they are accepted for who they are and a place where they know it's OK to make mistakes and to learn," he said.

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