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skills gap
Students at Tokyo National College of Technology test their handmade diodes in a laboratory. (Photo by Blaine Harden)

HACHIOJI, Japan—Every year, about one 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 an extra two years of advanced study receive 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 next spring in the water-quality division of Suntory, a brewing and distilling conglomerate.

By fusing classroom rigor with workplace knowhow, Kosen colleges fix a fundamental 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,” says 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 aged 20-24 with jobs has fallen from 74.2 to 62.2 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 youth.

Lessons From Abroad

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“When it comes to teenagers,” the study’s authors wrote, “we Americans seem to think that they will learn best by sitting all day in classrooms.”

Dropout rates are higher in the United States than anywhere in the industrialized world. By the time they reach their mid-twenties, only about 40 percent of Americans earn an associate or bachelor’s degree, according to Census data.

“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.”

President Barack Obama has frequently highlighted the problem, saying that while there are more than four job-seekers for every job opening, companies in science and high-tech fields cannot find qualified workers.

A potential cure for what ails secondary and higher education in the United States and in Japan looks a lot like what Kosen colleges have been doing for the past half century: requiring high school-age students to spend time in an actual workplace, integrating abstract subjects like 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 good-paying jobs, according to two recent studies conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which compiles data on economic and social trends in the United States and 29 other industrialized countries. Most of these countries place far more emphasis on vocational education than the United States does.

After Harvard released its withering critique of American higher education earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that while the United States cannot “just copy” the educational systems of other countries, it “can learn from them about how to build rigorous educational and work-experience programs with strong links to high-wage, high-demand jobs.”

skills gap
Students at Tokyo National College of Technology test their handmade diodes in a laboratory. (Photo by Blaine Harden)

Japan invented the Kosen system in 1961 because industry, particularly automakers, demanded it. As the economy began its miraculous post-war boom, there was a desperate shortage of engineers. Corporations had the political muscle to push the national government into creating a network of colleges that would churn them out.

Since the Kosen opened here in 1965, the focus of classroom study has shifted from cutting and welding metal to applied chemistry, computer science, and circuit design, with students marching from lecture halls to laboratories where they troubleshoot embedded computer systems that are the brains of modern cars and consumer electronics.

Students work to solve real-world problems for the nearly 1,000 companies that are located in the Hachioji area. Last year, a chemical-engineering student came up with a low-cost, non-toxic solution— made with persimmon juice—that replaces a highly toxic chemical used in the manufacture of chrome for automobiles. Nearly all students leave the 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 puts 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.

Students now spend far more time studying English than their predecessors did. 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 to 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 in Hachioji.

skills gap
Yujiro Hayashi, president of the Institute of National Colleges of Technology (Kosen) in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Blaine Harden)

In Tokyo, Yujiro Hayashi, the president of the entire Kosen system, puts it more diplomatically. He says that while the liberal arts are important to the development of well-rounded citizens, limits on time and money—together with pressure from global competition—mean that less-than-perfect choices have to be made.

“University training costs a lot, is very time-consuming and should be as efficient as possible,” Hayashi said.

With a total of about 50,000 students, the Kosen system is only a sliver of higher education in Japan, which has about 2.8 million students, most of them in universities modeled on the U.S. system.

All but the most elite of these universities, however, have been squeezed in recent decades by Japan’s collapsing population. The number of children under 15 has declined for 30 consecutive years, while the percentage of people aged 65 and above is the highest in the world.

The number of high-school graduates in Japan has plunged 37 percent in the past two decades. Four out of 10 universities now operate below capacity. About 15 percent of them are “zombie” institutions that are desperately struggling to find students and may be forced to close.

The acute shortage of young people, though, has yet to harm Kosen colleges, which have about 1.7 applicants for each available seat. Students are usually admitted to Kosen on the basis of a written test, but they can also choose to sit for an interview, and some are admitted on the recommendation of a teacher or school principal.

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

Bowing to continued pressure from big industry, Japan’s government continues to foot most of the bill for Kosen colleges. It pays about $25,000 a year per student, while students themselves pay just $3,500, which includes room and board. It is about half the out-of-pocket cost of attending a four-year university in Japan. About 40 percent of Kosen students live on campus in dormitories. The rest live at home with their parents and commute.

With about 10,000 graduates a year, Kosen colleges do not produce nearly enough graduates to meet the needs of Japanese industry. So many major corporations give preference in job offers to foreign-trained students, who are perceived as more competent in the workplace than graduates of Japan’s four-year universities.

skills gap
Students at Tokyo National College of Technology test their handmade diodes in a laboratory. (Photo by Blaine Harden)

There is nothing comparable to the Kosen system in the United States—and experts say it’s exceedingly unlikely that there will be in the near future.

Part of the reason, according to Carnevale at Georgetown, is that the pursuit of an egalitarian ideal—college for all—has created a pervasive bias in American high schools against vocational education. Researchers have also found a disconnect between the academic curricula in most U.S. high schools and the skills needed later to succeed in the community colleges that train students for technical occupations.

While President Obama has drawn attention to the skills gap that prevents many young people in the United States from finding good jobs, his administration’s 2012 budget has asked for a 20 percent cut in spending for vocational programs in high schools and community colleges.

“In American high schools, with only a few exceptions, we are still headed full-bore in the college-for-all direction with a system that doesn’t connect to the world of work,” said Carnevale. “This is not going to get better.”

A version of this story appeared in The Washington Post on October 14, 2011.

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