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back to index backGLOBALtalk July,  2007

ASIA: Taiwan wooing Japanese talent

MOVING ON: Japan's brain drain is Taiwan's gain, as thousands of top Japanese engineers pack their bags and move abroad amid downsizing at Japanese firms.

One of the hottest exports from Japan these days is not video games or eco-friendly cars -- it is engineers.

Japan's once vaunted electronics industry has downsized to survive global competition and is inadvertently setting off a brain drain. Thousands of Japanese engineers and other industry professionals have gone to Taiwan, South Korea and China to seek work at aggressive, fast-growing companies that want access to Japanese technological expertise.

One such explorer is Heiji Kobayashi, a 41-year-old semiconductor engineer, who said his career had hit a dead end a few years ago when his employer, Mitsubishi Electric Corp, spun off its memory chip business. With job prospects appearing bleak in Japan, he turned to Taiwan's booming chip industry, where he became a popular commodity.

Last month, he began a new job overseeing the design of factory production lines at Powerchip Semiconductor Corp, a chip maker in Hsinchu. As a deputy director, he said he received stock options, which are rare in Japan, has a secretary and is climbing the top rungs of management at the company, which has 6,500 employees.

"My skills are in far higher demand here," said Kobayashi, who has also worked for Mitsubishi Electric in Taiwan.

Such employment mobility was once unthinkable in highly insular Japan, where until recently, workers virtually married into their company and kept their jobs for life, and the strength of its electronics industry was a source of national pride.

However, the recent export of job-seekers is a sign of just how much Japan has changed from a decade of increased competition, corporate belt-tightening and the end of life-time job guarantees. No one knows for sure how many Japanese have left since the outflow began in earnest less than five years ago. However, employment agencies in Tokyo have reported a surge in inquiries by middle-aged Japanese professionals seeking work abroad.

"In Asia, we can keep contributing to society," said Katsumitsu Nakamura, 64, a former Hitachi Ltd engineer who quit to come to Taiwan, and was recently hired by a Hitachi subsidiary to train Taiwanese employees. "In Japan, we would just be collecting pensions."

The government of Taiwan says at least 2,500 Japanese have moved here in recent years to work mostly in technology-related manufacturing industries.

"This is a new era," said Tomoko Hata, managing director of Pasona Global Inc, a recruiting agency in Tokyo that specializes in finding jobs overseas for Japanese.

The migrants are finding themselves welcomed with open arms and generous pay. Some countries, like Taiwan, are aggressively courting Japanese professionals, as they are eager to gain access to Japan's leading technology in areas like electronics.

The Taiwanese government says it has spent US$20 million a year since 2003 to recruit foreign engineers, including Japanese, in such important industries as semiconductors and flat-panel displays.

It has held annual job fairs in Japanese cities like Tokyo and Osaka, and offers companies at home subsidies to help pay moving costs and the higher salaries that Japanese expect. To avoid angering Tokyo, officials in Taiwan said they direct their efforts at older Japanese engineers who are at or nearing retirement age.

"We need experienced engineers and we need them quickly," said Lin Ferng-ching, minister for technology policy. "Japanese engineers are very well trained and have good attitudes toward their work."

Larger companies in Taiwan have even offered annual pay packages topping US$1 million for candidates in prized fields, some Japanese engineers said.

So many Japanese have moved to Taiwan that some cities are building, or planning to build, Japanese-language schools for the engineers' children.

Almost every Japanese with technology-related experience gets job offers, Hata said. The largest number of offers are from companies in booming China, she said, but those with the most coveted skills tend to get hired by companies in Taiwan, which are rushing to close the technological gap with Japan.

Hiroshi Itabashi was an engineer with more than 20 years experience at a midsize Japanese television maker when he got an unexpected telephone call in 1999 from Delta Electronics Inc, a fast-growing Taiwanese electronic components company.

Delta wanted to start producing television screens and asked Itabashi to help set up their operation.

Three interviews later, including one with a Delta executive who flew to Tokyo to have lunch with him on a Saturday, Itabashi decided to make the jump.

"They gave me this exciting opportunity to build a whole new business from scratch," said Itabashi, 56, who asked that his former Japanese employer not be identified. "This is something you can't do in Japan. These days, Japanese companies always seem to be closing down operations, not starting new ones."

Though the benefits are great, Japanese going abroad say they sometimes struggle to adapt to vastly different corporate cultures. For Tatsuo Okamoto, a 51-year-old semiconductor engineer, the biggest change was the decision-making at Winbond Electronics Corp in Taiwan, which hired him away from the Tokyo-based chipmaker Renesas Technology Corp, two years ago.

Okamoto recalled one instance when a 15-minute chat in the hallway with Winbond's president was enough to win immediate approval to purchase millions of dollars worth of factory equipment. The same decision in Japan would have taken days of meetings, he said.

Okamoto said the experience opened his eyes to the problems hobbling Japan's competitiveness.

"Joining a Taiwanese company was a high-risk, high-return decision," Okamoto said. "But staying in Japan had become a high-risk, low-return proposition."

Source: Taipei Times - GAI

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