South Korea's latest big export: Jobless college graduates

A young South Korean at a 2018 Japan job fair in Seoul last year. State-run schemes aim to link young Koreans to “quality jobs” overseas.
A young South Korean at a 2018 Japan job fair in Seoul last year. State-run schemes aim to link young Koreans to “quality jobs” overseas.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL • Ms Cho Min-kyong boasts an engineering degree from one of South Korea's top universities, a school design award and a near-perfect score in her English proficiency test.

But all her 10 applications, including one to Hyundai Motor, were rejected in 2016. Help came unexpectedly from Japan six months later: Ms Cho had offers from Nissan Motor and two other Japanese companies after a job fair hosted by the South Korean government to match the country's skilled labour with overseas employers.

"It's not that I wasn't good enough. There are just too many job seekers like me," said the 27-year-old, who is now a car seat engineer for Nissan.

"There are numerous more opportunities outside Korea."

Facing an unprecedented job crunch at home, many youth in Asia's fourth-largest economy are signing up for government-sponsored schemes designed to find overseas posts for the rising number of jobless college graduates.

State-run schemes like K-move, rolled out to link young Koreans to "quality jobs" in 70 countries, found overseas jobs for 5,783 graduates last year, more than triple the number in 2013, its first year.

Almost one-third went to Japan, which is facing a historic labour shortage with unemployment at a 26-year low, while a quarter went to the United States, where the jobless rate fell to the lowest in nearly half a century in April.

"Brain drain isn't the government's immediate worry. Rather, it's more urgent to prevent them from sliding into poverty," even if it means pushing them abroad, said Asian Development Bank Institute's deputy dean Kim Chul-ju.

Last year, South Korea generated the smallest number of jobs since the global financial crisis, only 97,000. Nearly one in five young South Koreans was jobless of 2013, higher than the average 16 per cent among the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries.

In March, one in every four South Koreans in the 15-29 age group was not employed either by choice or due to the lack of jobs, according to government data.

The dominance of family-run conglomerates known as chaebol makes South Korea uniquely vulnerable. The top 10 conglomerates, including world-class brands such as Samsung and Hyundai, make up half of South Korea's total market capitalisation. But only 13 per cent of the country's workforce is employed by firms with more than 250 employees, the second lowest after Greece in the OECD, and far below the 47 per cent in Japan.

"The big companies have mastered a business model to survive without boosting hiring," as labour costs rise and firing legacy workers remains difficult, said Seoul National University's economics professor Kim So-young.

For those who found jobs overseas with government help, not all has been rosy. Several say they ended up with menial work, such as dish-washing in Taiwan and meat-processing in rural Australia, or were misinformed about pay and conditions.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2019, with the headline 'South Korea's latest big export: Jobless college graduates'. Subscribe