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Language, visa rules and big school fees deter foreign talent

[NEWS IN FOCUS]

Oct 06,2010
Despite Korea’s efforts to go global, many foreign professionals are leaving the country.

According to the Korea Immigration Service, the number of foreigners living in Korea has reached 1.22 million this year. Although more than 550,000 of them are employed, only about 44,000 are classified as professionals, a mere 4 percent of all foreigners residing in Korea. 

“Objectively, Korea isn’t attractive enough for foreign talent to take the risk of coming to Korea,” said one analyst.

The biggest obstacles facing foreign professionals are the lack of English speakers in Korea, visa restrictions and the expense of educating children in international schools.

Foreigners complain that they have difficulties overcoming the language barrier in coping with daily tasks, such as using appliances at home or communicating with work colleagues.

One American woman in her 40s, who recently left her job at a local asset management company, said her work was determined by what documents were translated for her by colleagues  and she never received clear work instructions in English. 

Shin Hye-kyung, executive director of headhunting firm CareerCare, said that recruiting foreign talent is difficult, despite Korea’s reputation as a growing economy, because of the language barrier. A British man who rejected a job offer from a local construction company told Shin that he had heard from foreign friends in Korea that “it is difficult to improve your performance or play a leading role because of the language barrier.”

Most work documents are not translated into English, and most business meetings are held in Korean. Murli Desai, 56, an Indian professor who signed a six-year contract at Seoul National University, decided to quit after only nine months because of the language issue. 

“Korean universities seem to think that employing many foreign professors is going global. But the schools have to be prepared to create an atmosphere where professors can work without unnecessary stress,” she said.

“Living in Korea as a foreigner is an absolute headache. When I first arrived here, I didn’t know how to throw out the garbage or install internet service, and no one was there to guide me,” said an American teacher in his 30s. 

Visa procedures are also seen as cumbersome, with a waiting period of three to four months. 

The prohibitive cost of education at international schools is another source of complaint.

A 40-year-old Indian researcher who works for steel company had to send his wife and daughter back to India so his daughter could attend a school there after they discovered that the tuition for an international school in Seoul was nearly 20 million won a year, a third of his total salary.

“Professors in their 40s or 50s are reluctant to teach at Korean universities after realizing the education circumstances their children will face in Korea,” said Kim Myeong-hwan, a former dean of academic affairs at Seoul National University.

Seoul National University professor Hoa Hong Nguyen, who teaches in the physics and astronomy department, said he is forced to send his daughter to a local kindergarten since he cannot afford an international school for her.

“When my daughter reaches the age for attending elementary school, I think I will have no choice but to go back,” Nguyen said. “In order to continue attracting foreign talent to Korea, the country needs to come up with an affordable education system for foreigners.” 

The problems can only be solved by changing corporate culture and social conditions.

Park Hyeong-cheol, director of Mercer Korea, a headhunting firm, said, “There are many large conglomerates that employ foreign talent without decent working conditions, including failing to establish the English-language or suddenly canceling long-term employment contracts.”

Kim Taek-jin, CEO at NCSoft, said that “in order to bring in foreign technology and improve market knowledge, expanding foreign talent is urgent. With enterprises working hard to create a suitable atmosphere for foreigners, coming up with new measures to establish affordable international schools is inevitable.” 


By Special reporting team [ebusiness@joongang.co.kr]



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