중앙데일리

Voc-tech grads get jump on jobs

Specialized curricula offer specific training tailored to the market

Feb 27,2016
Kim Jae-ryong, center, a graduate of Korea Nuclear Meister High School in Uljin County, North Gyeongsang, visits his teachers, including Principal Baek Gi-heum, right, before starting work next month at the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Company. [GONG JEONG-SIK]
National statistics show that youth unemployment hit its highest level in seven months in January, at 9.5 percent, with 413,000 people between the ages of 15 and 29 jobless.

But Kim Jae-ryong is one of the few young people who secured an offer from a highly reputable company - and during his junior year of high school, no less.

“I graduated from middle school at the top of my class three years ago and chose to attend Korea Nuclear Meister High School, unlike many of my classmates who attended humanities and social science high schools,” said Kim, 19, who is now a high school graduate.

“And that,” he added with a wide grin, “turned out to be just perfect.”

The ratio of jobs available for young people in Korea is about one position for every five applicants. However, Kim was one of the lucky few to have transcended those odds. He was offered a job at the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Company.

Meister high schools in Korea, like Korea Nuclear Meister High School in Uljin County, North Gyeongsang, are modeled after schools known abroad as vocational-technical (voc-tech) institutions - or, more recently, as career and technical education schools.

One hundred percent of Korea Nuclear Meister High School’s first class of graduates this year was employed by the time of graduation. Breaking the blue-collar stereotype of voc-tech school graduates, many secured top-quality jobs that are highly contested even among graduates of four-year universities.

Of the school’s 79 graduates, 29 are employed at public institutions, including the 17 hired by the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Company and two by the Korea Electric Power Corporation, one at the Korea Midland Power Company and three in the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Twenty-four graduates landed jobs in corporate companies such as Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Heavy Industries, 25 will work in midsize companies like Woori Technology and one will work in Ajin USA.

The 10 graduates who secured jobs at PONUTech - renamed Susan ENS last month - have already left the country to start work at nuclear facilities in the United Arab Emirates.

Korea Nuclear Meister High School is located in a pine tree forest on Korea’s eastern coast, and its Wolseong pavilion, behind the school building, adds a traditional touch to the campus. Yet for all its beauty and achievements, the school once faced the possibility of permanent closure.

In 2000, the voc-tech school, then known as Pyeonghae Engineering High School, was on the verge of closing just 32 years after its establishment in 1968, the result of the area’s dwindling population.

That’s when the residents of Uljin County acted to build a technical high school that would focus on nuclear studies - an apt idea given that North Gyeongsang is home to half of Korea’s 24 active nuclear power plants. Students could also take advantage of the Hanul Nuclear Power Plant, located in Uljin County, to gain on-the-job training.

Pyeonghae Engineering High School was renamed in 2011 and focused its curriculum on nuclear power generation. The school’s principal, Baek Gi-heum, kept enrollment limited to 80 students, in proportion with the regional population.

“There isn’t much the students can do here other than study,” Baek said.

Having spent three decades of his career working at the Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant, Baek was well-suited to design the school’s curriculum. He signed 50 or so contracts with companies, including Susan ENS, and created networks so wide they can field jobs to twice the number of current graduates.

In addition to strengthening the school’s internship and job-training programs, he banned cellphone use during the school day - instructors would return students’ phones to them on Friday afternoon.

To help students develop extracurricular interests, the school has a choir and sailing program. Students are also encouraged to go on field trips to the Geumgang pine forests in Uljin County and Dosan Seowon Confucian Academy in Andong, North Gyeongsang.

Baek admitted it was hard to attract teachers to the remote county, but he provided incentives by striking an agreement with the North Gyeongsang Education Office to ensure instructors at the high school have additional consideration by the office for promotion.

Local governments and the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Company plan to invest some 11 billion won ($9 million) in the school, 4.2 billion of which has been allocated to residential staff housing. The student dormitories and campus labs were also built with funds from the local governments and the company.

The newly enrolled students have a demonstrated record of academic excellence, with an average grade point average of 94 on a 100-point scale.

“I chose to attend Korea Nuclear Meister High School because I saw more graduates from four-year universities failing to secure jobs,” said Lee Hyun-seob, a graduate of the school who now works at Seoul City Hall. “Enrolling at a university is a choice I can make at any point in my life.”

BY SONG YEE-HO [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]


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