The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


Within the recruitment industry, we use the metaphor of a unicorn to describe the perfect candidate for whom every client searches. Like the mythical creature believed to exist somewhere at the edge of the known Earth, there are days when this metaphor is quite representative of how it feels to receive the search criteria set out by clients.

Upon receiving this list, a big part of a consultant’s job is to give their client some data to help them understand more about the reality of finding their ideal candidate. I am happy to share the story of a recent consultation.

I had a chance to sit down with one of our global clients while they visited Tokyo. We spoke about their frustrations when recruiting in Japan. They are a fast-growing, high-tech startup, with a progressive culture heavily influenced by their headquarters. Their teams are young and dynamic; they support flexible work styles and diversity.

Their CEO said to me, “I understand the aging population and we don’t require that much English. We have a great company; how hard is it to find a good engineer?” We then walked through some of the numbers and looked at the reality of finding their “ideal” IT engineer.

We started by extrapolating some data from Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and the National Tax Agency, and then took the average percent of the population willing to change their jobs at any given time. The total number of IT engineers in Japan is just over 784,000, and those estimated to be mid- to senior-level engineers number 210,000. Of experienced engineers, about 23,000 are open to a job change across Japan.

As a second step, we started to factor in cultural fit, bearing in mind that the client is a young company whose employees have varying degrees of English ability. Given that only 20 percent of the entire workforce in Japan is aged 25 to 34, how many of those 23,000 engineers would fit that profile? Turning to the factor of English capability, I reminded the client that Japan ranks 40th out of 48 nations for results on the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC).

Finally, we looked at the technology this candidate would need: Ruby or Python, languages that have just started to become prevalent in Japan. Would their hard skills be strong enough to meet our client’s expectations?

At this point we started to wonder how many IT engineers would remain in our candidate pool. Additionally, I pointed out the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare statistic showing there are roughly two job openings for every IT applicant in Japan. With such a rare skill set demanded by the client, each candidate would certainly have more than two job postings for which they were qualified.

Despite the seemingly grim outlook, we concluded the conversation on a positive note. I related that it is not impossible to find a good candidate, but that the client needed to redefine their “must have” versus their “nice to have” criteria. I explained that working with a good recruitment partner is not about being able to find them a unicorn; it is most important to communicate the real value an individual we represent can bring to a client’s organization, and to help clients determine the real cost of keeping a vacancy open.

At this point, we have found a few finalists who meet some of the original criteria set out by the IT client, but not necessarily what they originally targeted. The client is happy, as they feel they have options: one candidate may need some training and support while the other is at a higher skill level than expected. Most important, the client has found workable solutions.