This is part of a series of articles highlighting the valuable work that Microsoft’s Citizenship Managers are doing in Asia.

As if 630,000 NEETs (youth between 15 and 34 years old who are not in education, employment or training) is not a thorny enough problem, other negative employment signs are getting stronger in Japan. For instance, there are also growing numbers of the ‘corporate NEET’ (workers paid to simply show up) and FREETERs (young people engaged in unstable forms of employment, such as temporary or part-time work).

Microsoft Japan’s External Affairs and Citizenship Manager Lena Ryuji is too familiar with these acronyms. Since graduating from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in 1995, she has been in contact with many young people while managing academic programmes for educational institutions in Asia. As Microsoft Japan Citizenship Manager, she has spent the last seven years trying to address the country’s youth unemployment crisis.

“There has to be a greater tolerance of diversity in work patterns and lifestyles. If society can become more accepting of people who have not been working continuously, and if mind-sets and infrastructures are more inclusive, more people could be active members of society. This can only be a win-win situation, which would potentially rejuvenate our entire domestic economy.”

- Lena Ryuji, External Affairs and Citizenship Manager, Microsoft Japan

The crisis is due to several trends occurring concurrently, she explained. “What worries me,” she said, “is how it is leading to issues that are threatening the social fabric, impacting the mental and physical well-being of individuals and families.” She was referring to social problems like hikkomori (youth who isolate themselves from society, hardly leaving their homes for work or play), widening income disparities and urban poverty. The problem calls for an equally complex strategy, which would require working with the government, academics as well as corporate and nonprofit sectors, to ensure that the country is moving towards a resolution through consistent and aligned efforts. Thus far, Lena has reached out to the Parliament (Japan congress); Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology; Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare; as well as to local governments.

One crucial component of her advocacy and programming efforts is partnership. As part of its multi-sectoral strategy, Microsoft Japan has been working tightly with local nonprofit Sodateage Net, which offers employment support and skills training to young people. “Working with the Chief Executive Officer Kei Kudo has been an eye-opening experience for me,” said Lena. “Through him, I have deepened my understanding of the opportunity divide that cleaves our economy. What we are seeing in Japan is a problem that could come to plague similarly mature economies.”

Microsoft and Sodateage Net have been implementing skills training to match industry demands. According to a Boston Consulting Group study, around half of Japan’s small and medium-sized businesses still do not have a website, social media accounts, online store or mobile apps. Lena pointed out that Microsoft’s programmes are designed so that youth participants can leverage their new-found coding and other IT skills to access such opportunities.

 Lena Ryuji (left) with Yumiko Fukaya from Sodateage Net, our YouthSpark partner. Yumiko is responsible for collaboration with schools in career education, to help strengthen students’ job skills.

She is aware that there is still much work left to be done. “It is a vicious cycle. Full-time tenured employees typically receive training on the job, where they hone technical skills, such as basic PC knowledge, and ‘soft’ skills like critical thinking, collaborative problem-solving and project management. However, in the tight job market, inexperienced young workers who aren’t able to secure a job cannot pick up such skills, and continue to remain outside the workforce. At the same time, as one advances in age, the expectation of them possessing such skills increases, making it all the more difficult for the unemployed to ever enter the corporate world,” explained Lena.