With workplace training, Japan’s Kosen colleges bridge ‘skills gap’


Students at Tokyo National College of Technology test their handmade diodes in a laboratory. (Photo by Blaine Harden /For The Hechinger Report )
October 14, 2011

Every year, about 1 percent of Japanese 15-year-olds turn away from high school. Then they turn into full-time nerds-in-training, enrolling in colleges where they make robots and write software, test diodes and study English, dirty their hands on factory floors and wait for job offers to come flooding in.

Flood in they do, even though Japan’s economy is stagnant and its population is shrinking. Graduates of the standard five-year course at Japan’s 57 national colleges of technology, collectively known as Kosen, can each expect about 20 job offers, school officials say. Students who stay on for two years of advanced study receive about 30 offers.

Kikaru Kurokawa will not graduate until next year from the Kosen here in Hachioji, an hour west of Tokyo. But a job is already waiting for him. The aspiring chemist, who at 14 was testing for acid rain in mud puddles near his house, will go to work this spring in the
water-quality division of Sun­tory, a brewing and distilling conglomerate.

Kosen are hybrids of high schools and colleges that serve a small but important slice of the higher-education market, attracting students — often from working-class families — who combine an instinctive passion for building gadgets with above-average aptitudes in science and math.

By fusing classroom rigor with workplace know-how, these colleges fix a failing of high schools and universities in Japan — and in the United States.

It’s called the “skills gap,” and it’s the bitter fruit of educational systems in both countries that aspire to make college accessible for all but that often produce students who, if they do get a degree, focus too narrowly on abstractions while neglecting the hands-on competence necessary for landing jobs that pay middle-class wages.

“In Japan, the mainstream education system is extending childhood and not giving practical training,” said Motohisa Kaneko, director of research at the government’s Center for National University Finance and Management. “Even the basic competence of university graduates in engineering is rather dubious.”

The skills gap that troubles Japan is tormenting the United States. Since 2000, the percentage of U.S. young adults ages 20 to 24 with jobs has fallen from 74 percent to 62 percent, a level not seen since the 1930s, according to a 2011 study by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. It concluded that the “college for all” system that emerged in the United States after World War II is failing the majority of American youths.

By the time they reach their mid-20s, only about 40 percent of Americans earn an associate or bachelor’s degree, census data show.

“We are leaving a lot of kids behind,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “High school in America is about preparing for a college degree that most young people will not get, and in the meantime, these kids are disconnected from anything that is real in the world of work.”

A potential cure for what ails secondary and higher education in the United States and Japan looks a lot like what Kosen colleges have been doing for a half-century: requiring high school-age students to spend time in an actual workplace, integrating abstract subjects such as algebra with the use of cutting-edge machinery, and including local industry in the design of a constantly updated curriculum.

Work-based learning is the best way for the majority of students to stay in school and find jobs that pay well, according to two recent studies. Most industrialized countries stress vocational education far more than the United States does.

Japan invented the Kosen system in 1961 because industry, particularly automakers, demanded it. As the economy began a postwar boom, there was a desperate shortage
of engineers. Corporations pushed the government to create colleges that would churn them out.

In the Hachioji school, students work to solve real-world problems for the area’s nearly 1,000 companies. Last year, a chemical-engineering student came up with a low-cost, nontoxic solution — made with persimmon juice — that replaces a toxic chemical used to make chrome for cars. Nearly all students leave campus during their fourth year to work as unpaid interns at local companies that later compete to hire them. Five-year graduates earn roughly the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor’s degree, while seven-year grads earn the equivalent of a master’s.

“Kosen put students at the critical intersection of acquiring technical skills for real employability,” said Anthony Salcito, a vice president for education programs at Microsoft, which works with Kosen colleges to train students in software development.

As Japan races to keep up with globalization, many Kosen graduates are being sent abroad to help manage Japanese-owned factories.

What Kosen students tend to ignore, in comparison with high school students in Japan, are the liberal arts.

“For our students, too much liberal arts is a waste of time and talent,” said Tomohiko Ohtsuka, a professor of electrical engineering and vice president of the Kosen here.

By one measure, Japanese higher education is thriving: Japan ranks third in the world in college completion among young adults, well ahead of the 16th-ranked United States. But many Japanese universities face demographic challenges. The number of children younger than 15 has fallen for 30 consecutive years. Some schools might be forced to close.

The shortage of young people has yet to harm Kosen colleges, which serve about 50,000 students and have about 1.7 applicants for each available seat. Students are usually admitted on the basis of a written test. Some get in on the recommendation of a teacher or principal. The government pays about $25,000 a year per Kosen student, while students pay $3,500 each.

“Parents know their children will get good jobs when they graduate,” said Yujiro Hayashi, president of the national Kosen system. “While the number of students across Japan will continue to decrease, we anticipate no problem in finding students.”

This article was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

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