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Japan construction firm training foreign workers to become core of workforce

From left, Wu Haiming, Weng Fei and Hao Qingsong, who have Specified Skilled Worker No. 2 visa status, and Concrete Pump Ltd. President Taketo Kano are seen during an interview in Kakamigahara, Gifu Prefecture, on May 29, 2023. (Mainichi/Koji Hyodo)

KAKAMIGAHARA, Gifu -- A company in central Japan is seeking ways to train foreign workers to obtain the "Specified Skilled Worker (ii)" resident status, which allows them to work indefinitely, and place them at the core of the workforce.

    A look at the daily lives of the workers at the construction firm Concrete Pump Ltd. in Kakamigahara, Gifu Prefecture, reveals the reality of Japan, in which Japanese workers alone are not enough to keep a business going.

    "Good morning. Let's confirm the details of today's work," said 36-year-old Weng Fei, who was the first person in Japan to obtain the Specified Skilled Worker No. 2 visa. For him, a typical day begins by greeting staff at the morning assembly.

    He sometimes directs and supervises hundreds of workers at construction sites, and serves as a "foreman" who manages the work progress. Weng explained, "I can proceed with my work while thinking about arrangements and coordination with other contractors on my own." He added, "I find my work interesting and rewarding."

    Weng, who came to Japan from China in 2010, has gained experience at this firm. He advanced from an unskilled "technical training intern" to "Specified Skilled Worker (i)" which requires considerable knowledge and experience, but it was even harder to obtain the No. 2 status, which requires expert skills.

    Weng Fei, who has Specified Skilled Worker No. 2 visa status, is seen during an interview in Kakamigahara, Gifu Prefecture, on May 29, 2023. (Mainichi/Koji Hyodo)

    To qualify for the No. 2 status of the specified skill program, he needed to pass the first-class vocational ability test, which only has a 50 to 60% pass rate even for Japanese workers who do not have a language disadvantage. For two months prior to the test, Weng used not only break time and after work hours but also his days off to study for it.

    The No. 2 status allows family members of the foreign worker to stay in Japan, which was a motivating factor for Weng. "I felt lonely by myself. It's really different when you can be with your family." He obtained the No. 2 visa status in April 2022, and his wife came to Japan last fall.

    Concrete Pump has been encouraging foreign employees to obtain the No. 1 or No. 2 visa so that they can work at the company for a long time. Concrete Pump President Taketo Kano, 51, has held study sessions for the vocational ability tests and created an opportunity for those who obtain specified skilled worker status to receive rewards and pay raises.

    Employees Hao Qingsong, 45, and Wu Haiming, 43, both from China, obtained their No. 2 visa status last fall. There are only 11 people in Japan with the same visa status, making the company a place with one of the highest pass rates in the country. The firm also provides extensive care for families who have come to Japan, helping them find kindergartens, assisting them in learning Japanese and offering advice on everyday life in the country.

    The construction industry in Japan is facing a severe labor shortage and aging worker population, with the average age of Japanese engineers at Concrete Pump in their 50s. President Kano told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We may be good for another five years, but what will happen after that?"

    It takes at least three years to train engineers, but even if young Japanese workers are hired, they tend to quit before then. Because of this, the company is focusing on hiring and training foreign personnel. Of the company's 25 employees, 11 are foreign nationals, and the average age is apparently in their early 30s.

    Kano says, "Foreign employees are not mere laborers, but important engineers. In the future, we are considering having them involved in the management of the company."

    (Japanese original by Richi Tanaka, Nagoya News Center)

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