Keen to attract young talent, Japan’s civil service faces a hurdle to work-life balance


Work style reform has become an urgent challenge for the Japanese government, with fewer young people wanting to become fast-track career bureaucrats.

The number of applicants for the national civil service exams held in the spring and fall, which provide a pathway to so-called elite jobs, stood at 17,411 in fiscal year 2021 – the highest figure. lowest since fiscal year 2012, when the current recruiting format began. This figure represents a fall of approximately 60% compared to the record level of the 1996 financial year.

University students are increasingly avoiding bureaucratic careers, which are known to involve difficult work environments and include long overtime hours.

When the National Personnel Authority (NPA) asked bureaucrats hired in April 2021 how to attract skilled workers into the civil service, 80% suggested a “reduction in overtime and late night work”.

National civil servants are not allowed to work more than 360 overtime hours per year. The annual cap is higher, at 720 hours, for workers involved in parliamentary business, such as preparing written responses from Cabinet ministers to lawmakers’ questions in parliament. In fiscal year 2019, 19,540 government employees worked longer than the cap.

A Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs survey of bureaucrats wishing to leave government before retirement found that many of them wanted to land “attractive jobs” allowing for “self-growth”. The share of staff giving this reason was particularly high among people in their 30s and younger, he said.

The survey results indicate an urgent need for the government to create working environments that staff find stimulating and useful.

To solve this problem, the office prepared a manual to improve the management skills of senior officials, such as how to deal with their subordinates and assign tasks to them. He also launched a training program based on the manual to change the mindsets of senior managers, to promote government-wide labor system reform.

In an online training program launched last November, some 450 new executives engaged in a case study of coordination between subordinates who cannot work overtime in the name of parenting and superiors who overtime for granted.

The program also included a simulation in which officials listened to their subordinates talk about their concerns and gave them advice. After the training, participants set activity goals at their workplace and reviewed how many of them had been achieved a month later.

“We hope that the lessons learned from the training session will be used to facilitate communication in the workplace,” said a senior bureau official.

To attract candidates for the National Civil Service Recruitment Examination, the NPA has been broadcasting live webinars since last October in cooperation with Mynavi Corp., a job website operator, in which young and of middle rank talk about the attractions of their work.

Unlike past recruitment events, which mainly focused on explanations of the services provided by national civil servants, speakers discuss their honest opinions under a theme chosen for each webinar, such as “Why I decided to work for the government rather than in the private sector” and the state of work-life balance in their workplace.

The NPA has so far held eight webinars, each watched by more than 300 people and some as many as more than 1,000 – comparable to similar programs run by companies popular with young people, an NPA official said. Many questions and comments have been received from viewers, while the number of regular viewers is increasing.

The webinars aim to grab the attention of students before they begin their serious job search efforts. “We hope that honest opinions (about public service), including negative opinions, will hit the bull’s eye with students,” the official said.

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