TOKYO -- Japan's automakers are facing the worst labor shortage in decades and they have found the solution: hire more women.
The problem is they're all having the same thought at the same time and fighting over the world's smallest pool of female engineering graduates.
The story of Yui Mitsuhashi illustrates the problem. Captain of a team that builds race cars at prestigious Osaka University, the 24-year-old engineering student would be among the most prized recruits for Toyota Motor or Nissan Motor, if only she wanted to work for them. But as much as she loves cars, she isn't sure she wants to spend her life in the industry, which has a reputation for long hours and big gender imbalances.
"People are always telling me: 'You could go to any company you want,'" Mitsuhashi said, standing in the center of the university's tool-strewn shop. "I want to have kids, but right now I'm not sure whether I want to keep working when they're young. So, I want to pick an employer that gives me options."
A dearth of young people has made Japan a seller's market for workers, a situation that's set to worsen for employers over the next two decades as the country's aging labor force shrinks by an estimated 8 million. Meanwhile, the auto industry is losing some appeal for college grads, who are choosing jobs in finance and software design instead. Ten years ago, Toyota was the most desirable employer among math and science grads. Now it's sixth, according to job search website MyNavi. For Honda and Nissan, the slide has been steeper.
"It's one reason they want to hire more women,'' said Tatsuo Yoshida, a longtime Nissan veteran who is now an equities analyst at Sawakami Asset Management in Tokyo. "But the thing is, engineering graduates have so many choices.''
Since 2013, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made it a national priority to remedy Japan's labor crunch by bringing more women workers into the workforce, Japanese corporations have been trying, in varying measure, to be more inclusive.
At one end of the spectrum are businesses like potato-chip maker Calbee, where chairman Akira Matsumoto has worked to quash sexism by telling employees: "If you don't like diversity, you can quit." Less direct efforts have come in the construction industry, where women workers are sometimes provided with porta-potties colored pink or adorned with floral patterns.
The auto industry is making a diversity push of its own. Toyota in 2014 started making college loans available to engineering students like Mitsuhashi (although she's not a recipient). Last month, Toyota and Honda opened additional day care centers near their factories with Toyota even offering to keep kids overnight for parents on late shifts, a service that may be as much a symptom of the industry's problems as a solution. The companies say they've also introduced flexible hours for working mothers and added more women's bathrooms on factory floors.
Nissan, which started to promote gender equality in 2004, about a decade before the others, says 10 percent of its Japanese managers are now women. (The average is about four percent at big businesses across the country, according to Japan's Cabinet Office.) Rena Nagai, a 48-year-old chief engineer at Nissan who directs a team working on ride comfort, said she's seen a lot more women joining the company in the last few years. "I really hope I can be a mentor to them," she said in an interview arranged by the automaker.
Elsewhere, the numbers are less encouraging. At Toyota, fewer than 2 percent of the automaker's 9,977 managers are women. The company in January promoted its first woman, Lexus engineer Chika Kako, into the upper echelon of its top 53 executives.
At Honda Motor, women account for less than 1 percent of the managers. One of them, engineer Natsuko Iwasaki, a team leader who the company made available for an interview, said overt sexism is less tolerated at the office these days. Yet it wasn't so long ago when it seemed natural for her boss to ask whether she intended to quit once she got married. "He said he didn't want to waste his time training me,'' she said.
In 2013, the Society of Automotive Engineers of Japan started holding networking events to try to increase its female membership. At the first meetings, people vented so much frustration it felt like therapy, organizer Ikuyo Tameda recalled. "Some people broke down and cried," she said. "There were so many stories about being the only woman in the department, or being passed over for promotion because you couldn't put in enough overtime."
At more recent mixers, raw emotion has been replaced by something closer to resignation, according to Tameda. "Now I'm hearing a lot of people say it's good enough just to keep working," she said.
One thing that hasn't changed: Female membership at the society is still stuck at 2 percent. Toyota, Nissan and Honda declined to disclose what proportion of their engineers are women.
The car business outside Japan is still mostly a man's world, too. In the U.S., the Detroit Three got their first female chief executive officer in 2014, when Mary Barra took the top job at General Motors. In January, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne acknowledged that all of the candidates to succeed him after his planned retirement next year are men.
A narrow pipeline of female students in science, engineering and math is part of the problem. In the U.S., Germany, France and South Korea, women make up only between 21 and 25 percent of graduates in those fields, according to Honeypot, a tech career placement website. In Japan, the number is 15 percent, the lowest among the 41 countries tracked by Honeypot.
Mitsuhashi, the university student, says she got her passion for cars from her father, who drove a Maserati. Still, she says she might not have had the courage to visit the car-building club if weren't for the prodding of a friend. One sight of the machine shop, with its clutter of tools and spare parts, and she was hooked.
"Part of me doesn't want to give up on cars," she said. "I want people to know what cool machines they are.''