We are still far from knowing the total impact of last Friday’s earthquake and tsunami, but “apocalyptic” seems appropriate, and our thoughts and prayers are with those in Japan. I do not want any readers to think I am minimizing the disaster by writing about it—trust me that my typical sarcasm is taking the week off.
Before you dive too far into this post, consider visiting the charity of your choice or the American Red Cross webpage. You can donate money if you have it, or time and supplies if you don’t.
As an HR person, I am trying to wrap my arms around the logistical nightmare the Japanese now face. After they get through the immediate danger, one of the hundreds of near term challenges is getting the right people working in the right places. Business and government leaders need to find a massive workforce to perform cleanup and demolition work, which would be ridiculously challenging in the best of circumstances; Japan probably has the worst of circumstances.
Consider the issues: Japan is an island nation with 4.9% unemployment, a highly educated population, a historically insular culture, a debt to GDP ratio of 200% and significantly more senior citizens than young people. They need to hire thousands of employees to do really hard and dirty work, and in the U. S., such work typically requires certifications which few people have. A Huffington Post story on the Gulf Oil Spill noted that only 10% of over 4,000 applicants who applied in Florida had the needed certs, and they had lines of applicants around the block. That’s a 90% rejection rate before the first interview.
Help can come from outside of Japan, but even before the earthquake and the tsunami, Japan had a closed immigration policy. From the Washington Post last year:
For Japan, maintaining economic relevance in the next decades hinges on its ability — and its willingness — to grow by seeking outside help. Japan has long had deep misgivings about immigration and has tightly controlled the ability of foreigners to live and work here…the country’s population (is) expected to fall from 127 million to below 100 million by 2055 (and) just 1.7 percent of the population (or roughly 2.2 million people) is foreign or foreign-born.
So, Japan has a desperate physical and economic situation, a small, unqualified and elderly labor pool, and horrible environmental conditions. An accelerant is the desperation that government and businesses will feel to just “get work done.” As I look at it, they have a few options, but none are easy, cheap or quick:
- Design a system to deliver quick and intense training on environmental cleanup to get qualified people working.
- Adjust immigration requirements and develop plans that motivate disaster-trained professionals to get to Japan. Getting the right talent there now, whatever it costs, will save money and lives later.
- For certain roles, waive the certification requirement for this type of work. They do need labor, but this move can add to the disaster, though, so it requires close oversight and management.
- Help work teams manage hires that aren’t going to work out. Some will hire because they “just need bodies,” a mindset that will cause problems.
Most folks involved in this work are contractors who travel from disaster to disaster lured by the idea of high wages and lots of hours. In normal situations, that’s a major hiring and management challenge. Here, it’s just mind boggling. Somehow, Japan needs to design a system that allows them to quickly identify the right people, attract them to Japan, get them there and get them working. It’s as big and important of a challenge as I can imagine. As they face it, they are in our thoughts and prayers.
I have spent the last 20 years of my professional life advising leaders to make great talent decisions to drive business results. In my current gig, I lead talent acquisition and management for a multi-billion-dollar, 100% employee-owned construction company. I geek out on analytics, succession planning, etc. and love it when we position folks to do their best work. That’s fun stuff. I tease bad HR people, because I think we can all do better, myself included. That’s fun, too.