Tue, May 14, 2019 - Page 10 News List

South Korea’s latest export: Jobless college graduates

Reuters, SEOUL

Facing an unprecedented job crunch at home, many young South Koreans are signing up for government-sponsored programs designed to find overseas positions for a growing number of jobless college graduates in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

State-run programs, such as K-move, rolled out to connect young South Koreans to “quality jobs” in 70 countries, last year found overseas jobs for 5,783 graduates, more than triple the number in 2013, its first year.

Almost one-third went to Japan, which is undergoing a historic labor shortage with unemployment at a 26-year low, while one-quarter went to the US, where the jobless rate last month dropped to the lowest in nearly a half century.

There are no strings attached. Unlike similar programs in places such as Singapore that come with an obligation to return and work for the government for up to six years, attendees of South Korea’s programs are neither required to return, nor work for the state.

“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, Asian Development Bank Institute deputy dean Kim Chul-ju said.

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 out of work as of 2013, higher than the average 16 percent among the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

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


While India and other countries face similar challenges in creating jobs for skilled labor, 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 Electronics Co and Hyundai Motor Co, make up half of South Korea’s total market capitalization.

However, only 13 percent 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 percent in Japan.

“The big companies have mastered a business model to survive without boosting hiring” as labor costs rise and firing legacy workers remains difficult, said Kim So-young, an economics professor at Seoul National University.

Yet while increasing numbers of college graduates are moving overseas for work, South Korea is bringing in more foreigners to solve another labor problem — an acute shortage of blue-collar workers.

Even amid a glut of overeducated and underemployed graduates, most refuse to “get their hands dirty,” said Lim Chae-wook, who manages a factory making cable trays that employs 90 people in Ansan, southwest of Seoul.

“Locals simply don’t want this job because they think its degrading, so we’re forced to hire a lot of foreign workers,” Lim said, pointing to nearly two dozen workers from the Philippines, Vietnam and China working in safety masks behind welding machines.

For those who escaped South Korea’s tough job market, not all has been rosy.

Several people who found overseas jobs with government help have said that they ended up taking menial work, such as dishwashing in Taiwan and meat processing in rural Australia, or were misinformed about pay and conditions.

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