The older generation used to advise us when we were in school, “Study hard and go to university so you can get a good job!” Nowadays, being able to go to university and getting a degree has become the norm. But the question is, has it really helped us to get jobs?
In Seoul, an engineering graduate from one of South Korea’s top universities, Cho Min-kyong has been repeatedly rejected 10 times in her job applications despite her well-sought after certificate, her near-perfect score in her English proficiency test, and being the recipient of the school design award. She has then lost faith in landing a job.
Cho says, “It’s not that I wasn’t good enough. There are just too many job seekers like me, that’s why everyone just fails.” Unexpectedly for Cho, she received job offers from her neighbour country Japan half a year later. A job fair held by the South Korean government to match the country’s skilled labour with overseas employers was how Cho managed to get offers from Japanese companies including Nissan Motor. She is currently employed as a car seat engineer for Nissan in Atsuki.
Unfortunately, Cho’s situation wasn’t a standalone case. Many Korean university graduates are facing the same difficulty of finding a job. Since the global financial crisis, South Korea has hit the lowest amount of jobs created- a mere 97,000 in 2018. Thankfully for the discovery of opportunities outside Korea, many young Koreans have signed up for government-sponsored programmes that aimed to search for available overseas job positions.
You can say that these programmes were considered a “success” for Asia’s fourth largest economy. One of them, known as K-move, has managed to connect young Koreans to “quality jobs” in over 70 countries, finding overseas jobs for 5,783 graduates last year- a significant increase of three times compared to when it first started in 2013.
Majority of them ended up in Japan and the United States, helping to lower these countries’ initially-significant unemployment rate, thus boosting these economies.
The best part of this deal..? There is no whatsoever contract that young Koreans are bounded to, unlike in Singapore. There is absolutely no obligation for them to return to Korea and work for the government. The Korean government is not worried about their country facing the issue of brain drain. “Rather, it’s more urgent to prevent them from sliding into poverty” even if encouraging their citizens to work abroad is what it takes, said Kim Chul-ju, deputy dean at the Asian Development Bank Institute.
JOBS AVAILABLE BUT NOT THE RIGHT JOBS?
Even though South Korea is not known to be the only country having difficulties creating jobs for skilled labour, it is extremely vulnerable due to the dominance of family-run conglomerates known as chaebol. Half of South Korea’s total market capitalization is made up of world-class brands like Samsung and Hyundai which are part of the top 10 conglomerates.
In the entire South Korea’s workforce, only 13% of it are working in companies that have more than 250 employees. The reason that this is still sustainable for the companies is the fact that they have developed a business structure that can work even without increasing the number of workers.
Jobless university graduates isn’t the only labour problem that South Korea is dealing with. The shortage of blue-collar workers has forced the country to bring in more foreign workers. A lot of employees in the factories are from the Philippines, China, and Vietnam doing work that young Koreans refuse to take on. The latter look upon these jobs as lower-class and degrading as graduates. So the truth is: is there really a lack of jobs? Or is there a lack of suitable jobs? The overwhelming demand of top-tier jobs amongst young Koreans cannot be met by Korea market’s supply. The labour-intensive jobs are then left vacant and available to foreign workers, creating an increase in labour costs for companies. This is because foreign workers are more expensive to hire due to provision of accommodation, meals and utility costs by Korean companies.
NOT ALL RAINBOW AND BUTTERFLIES
For the young Koreans who have left their home country and landed jobs overseas, things did not go as planned for them. Many of them have reported that they ended up having to take up unskilled jobs such as dishwashing in Taiwan or even meat processing in Australia. Most of them were misinformed about their salary and terms and conditions.
In 2017, one such example was Lee Sun-hyung, a 30-year old athletics major who moved to Sydney under K-move to work as a swim coach. She was promised three times more than what she eventually earned- US$419 per month. As a result, it could not cover her rent and she had to take up an additional part-time job at a fashion store to make ends meet.
To ensure history does not repeat itself, the South Korean government is making a “black list” of such reported employers and becoming more stringent on the vetting process. A “support and reporting centre” has also been set up so that the labour ministry can better respond to any issues raised but according to survey results in 2017, about 90% of graduates who embark on these programmes between 2013-2016 to work overseas did not respond about their whereabouts or even changed their contact details without informing.
Yet, the current situation does not deter young Koreans from job hunting abroad. The government has also increased relevant budget to support rising demand – from 57.4 billion won (US$48.9 million) in 2015 to 76.8 billion won in 2018.
It is with hope that these highly educated Koreans would one day return back to Korea and contribute to their own economy after gaining experiences and skills with the countless opportunities presented to them overseas.
I would hate to say this- but don’t you think the situation in South Korea is relatable to young Singaporeans too? Would our country run out of high-skilled jobs for the locals and having more of our locals flee to other countries to seek for career opportunities in years to come? That’s some food for thought.