Japan’s class of 2020 are starting their careers online

Spring is an exciting time for budding professionals in Japan. Every March, around 550,000 young adults graduate from university with an eye to starting their first full-time job at the beginning of the Japanese financial year.

On April 1, companies big and small welcome fresh graduates at a grand entrance ceremony, where they are often addressed by company leadership.

In most cases, the new employees aren’t put to work straight away. Instead, they undergo anywhere from a few weeks to a year of fully paid, full-time training alongside their fellow recruits, with whom they form a lifelong bond.

From outside of Japan, keeping new employees in training for so long might seem a hefty investment. But the country’s long-standing culture of lifetime employment makes sense for Japanese companies looking to build a skilled workforce.

New beginnings — for both trainees and trainers

For Rakuten, this year was a little different. On April 1, 2020, Rakuten welcomed around 700 new graduates in an online ceremony, where Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani addressed the group personally.

Rakuten CEO Mikitani (bottom row, center) addressing some of Rakuten’s new recruits.
Rakuten CEO Mikitani (bottom row, center) addressing some of Rakuten’s new recruits.

Under normal circumstances, the 700 new Rakutenians would have promptly moved into their brand-new office space for two to six months of company training. However, two weeks before the beginning of April, with expanding COVID-19 countermeasures on the horizon and more and more of the company working from home, Rakuten announced that it would move all of the “new-grads” training online.

Staying agile in a time of uncertainty

E-learning programs have been a core part of Rakuten’s in-house training for years, but 2020 marks the first time that all of the initial training will take place over the web.

The quick pivot to remote training presented some logistical challenges, as the training team had to swiftly ship out 700 training-ready laptops to recruits across the country. Content-wise, however, the program remains largely the same, with a focus on business skills, sales, project management, programming and utilization of AI. This year, however, it will all take place over collaboration platforms like Viber, Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

“It’s our first time doing online training,” says Sakura Horii, manager in the Talent Development Section at Rakuten’s Group Human Resources Department. “We needed to bring on new ideas to make sure that all the new grads could gain a certain level of engagement and understanding for each lecture.”

Horii also believes that fostering a sense of camaraderie among the recruits is another important challenge. “We need to work out how to build that relationship among the new grads.”

For 22-year-old University of Tokyo graduate Kakeru Suzuki, online training felt like something entirely natural for an IT company to be doing.

“I think IT companies are particularly well-prepared for COVID-19. There are some things only Rakuten can do because it is an IT company,” he says. “IT companies have the power to connect people who could previously never connect. That’s why I chose to work at one.”

Suzuki isn’t too concerned about the physical isolation, either. “Before COVID-19, my colleagues and I actually did a project together,” he explains. “So we’ve been using Zoom since before COVID-19 even started. We already started to develop a kind of camaraderie from that. I don’t think it’s too much of a problem.”

As part of a classroom team activity, the new grads broke into teams and created their own music videos.
As part of a classroom team activity, the new grads broke into teams and created their own music videos.

Lessons for the future

For Senior Manager of Talent Development Kaori Shimizu, the experiment has yielded some promising results. “We’ve found that there are definitely benefits to doing the training online,” she explains. “For example, one-on-one communication with each of the new grads is actually easier, since you can manage those connections very effectively over a computer.”

These important lessons might even shape how training is conducted in the future. “We would like to keep these methods of communication available even after the situation calms down.”

Suzuki has no doubt about the future. “How we worked before COVID-19 is quite clearly different from how we’ll be working after it,” he asserts. “Even the idea of ‘going online’ will become irrelevant — we’ll always ‘be online’. It will just become a regular part of how we work.”

“Starting our careers online like this feels like a pivotal point in that transformation.”

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