Dream jobs prove elusive for South Korea's college grads

About 500,000 young South Koreans - over 60 per cent of whom are degree holders - enter the job market every year. But only 200,000 permanent positions are available, according to government data.
About 500,000 young South Koreans - over 60 per cent of whom are degree holders - enter the job market every year. But only 200,000 permanent positions are available, according to government data.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Young people with ambitions face high jobless rate amid weak economy

Dreaming of becoming a museum curator, Ms Chin Young worked hard for 13 years, studying art at the university and pursuing two art-related master's degrees - one in Seoul and the other in London. She also brushed up on her English language skills and worked part-time at art galleries to gain experience - both requirements for her dream job.

But now, Ms Chin, 32, is jobless and feeling hopeless.

She lost her temporary job at a museum when her one-year contract ended on Feb 24, after suffering a year of verbal abuse and mistreatment by her superior and bringing home a meagre salary of 1.3 million won (about S$1,500) a month. 

She is having second thoughts about her dream job, after the shock of realising that there is a newly introduced exam aspiring museum curators must pass in order to be hired, and wonders if she should pursue a doctorate so she can become an art professor instead.

"I feel so angry and sad, and I can't sleep just thinking about my future. I really did all that I could possibly do to prepare myself for the job. I tried to be patient and hope for the better, but the situation just kept getting worse. There is no hope now," she said with a sigh.

Ms Chin is not alone in the pursuit of elusive dream jobs, given South Korea's weak economy marked by a high youth unemployment rate - or that of young people aged 15 to 29 - of 9.5 per cent in January, sluggish recruitment and a big mismatch between desired and available jobs.

It does not help that about 80 per cent of high school students proceed to college and two out of three South Koreans aged 25 to 34 are degree holders - higher than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average of below 40 per cent but comparable to Singapore's 60 per cent.

The situation is no better in Taiwan, where nearly 70 per cent of a cohort of 18- to 22-year-olds go to college - the second highest in the world after South Korea - and youth unemployment is 12.73 per cent as of last November. The Sunflower student protest movement of 2014 was as much about young people's worry about their future as it was about opposition to closer economic ties with mainland China.

In South Korea, about 500,000 young people - over 60 per cent of whom are degree holders - enter the job market every year. But there are only 200,000 permanent positions available, according to government data. The rest are lowly paid temporary jobs, either contract based or daily rated. The minimum wage is 6,030 won per hour.

With big conglomerates cutting back on recruitment amid the economic slowdown, thousands of college graduates end up delaying graduation, attending private classes to prepare for job hunting, or taking up temporary positions while waiting for better offers.

There are now 609,000 college graduates of all ages taking lessons to prepare themselves for better jobs, out of a record-high group of 3.34 million degree holders outside of the labour force according to the latest Statistics Korea figures. These are graduates who are out of work and not actively looking for work, and the number is more than double the 1.59 million in 2000 and 4.7 per cent higher than in 2014.

Some 398,000 college graduates, or 3.4 per cent of all graduates, are unemployed. For new college graduates, the jobless figure in 2014 was much higher at 32.2 per cent. The competition for jobs is keen - last September, 100,000 applicants sat the entrance exam of one of the country's largest conglomerates, Hyundai, for 4,000 new positions.

In a society that is obsessed with education and does not condone failure, many ambitious young college graduates are unwilling to settle for anything below their expectations and may end up over-preparing and waiting in vain for months or even years for the ideal job opening.

"Decorated with a college degree many of their parents didn't hold in the past, young job seekers these days want to get a job that matches their human capital acquired through college education - in other words, a position with high- enough wages and a decent degree of job security," said Dr Kim Se Um from the Korea Labour Institute.

The problem, he said, is that most large firms now prefer to hire young workers on a contract basis to keep costs low, instead of offering them regular positions.

Jobs are aplenty at small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), but they are not attractive to college graduates as SMEs can afford to pay only 62 per cent of wages offered by big companies.

The financial industry pays entry-level jobs an average of 3.28 million won a month, while the retail industry pays 2.75 million won and the manufacturing sector 2.8 million won, according to Korea Employers Association data.

The result is a "huge mismatch plaguing the Korean labour market", said Dr Kim. He added that there is a need for economic restructuring to allow SMEs to compete on a more equal footing and give them greater bargaining power in business deals with firms affiliated with the big conglomerates.

With the economy too dependent on big firms now, such conglomerates have better bargaining power with the government.

Otherwise, "SMEs would enjoy a larger share of the economic pie, their financial position would be improved, and ultimately there'd be significant room to offer a much more attractive contract to potential employees", he said.

Creating more jobs for youth is a key pledge of President Park Geun Hye, who has urged conglomerates to hire more young adults. Last September she started a Youth Hope Fund that will create 6,300 new jobs and provide training and services to 125,000 young people this year.

The government has tried shifting the focus away from the paper chase and encouraging youth to go for vocational training and apprenticeship programmes - a trend also evident in Singapore - to meet labour demands in sectors such as information technology.

The scheme, begun in 2010, has had limited success, but experts said attitudes are starting to change, given the current economic situation.

"Back when Korea was a fast- growing economy, having a university degree was a sign of prestige and a way of securing employability," said Dr Ijin Hong from Ewha Womans University, who teaches social policy. "Now that the middle class has expanded and more people could afford higher degrees at the academic level, universities, courses and faculties have also increased beyond control, and having a degree is not so practically and socially desirable anymore."

Some choose to compromise on their dream.

Ms Jinny Yu, 26, graduated in 2014 with double majors in Korean literature and international trading. She applied to over 40 companies for a position in international sales, but failed to land her dream job.

"I became very depressed and I didn't want to hang out with friends because I felt like a loser. I sometimes blamed myself, and sometimes the society and country. The hardest time of my life was trying to find a job," she said.

She has decided to switch to teaching English, after trying it out on a part-time basis and realising that she enjoys it. She is now attending classes for TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certification to boost her employability as an English tutor - a job in abundance given the obsession with learning English.

Her advice to others who cannot find jobs? "Be open-minded and keep looking, because it takes time for you to find another career. Focus on what you're interested in, and don't give up."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2016, with the headline 'Dream jobs prove elusive for S. Korea's college grads'. Print Edition | Subscribe