The game has changedWhen times are tough, you do what you have to do － or say what you have to say － to get a good job. "Like a river that runs through it, I would like to overcome obstacles smoothly, with big goals in mind," said Lee Su-han, 26, to a prospective employer. He got hired.
After a series of initial interviews with a local conglomerate, Mr. Lee wound up at a group interview staged by the firm, competing with 44 other qualified applicants － all men except for one woman － that would decide who would get a few precious positions. The man next to him said, "Life is like climbing a tall mountain; the drops and rises along the way seem daunting, but if you are patient and wise enough you'll reach the top." Next up was a man who, despite a staid appearance, burst into the song and dance routine of a popular female singer. The judges, six middle-aged company men, were clearly unimpressed. Mr. Lee consoled the crooner, saying his clothes － a designer suit, like all the other applicants had on, clashed with his act.
Mr. Lee had not planned to be begging a private company for a job. His dream had always been to pass the state examination, get a good government job and return to his hometown a huge success. Plus he had never even seen the Robert Redford film "A River Runs Through It." He drew on the movie, though, to outdo the other 44 job hopefuls.
Two days after this peculiar talent show, Mr. Lee was told that he had gotten the job, and would start in January. "I guess my earnest attitude was the key to success," he said, then assumed a winner's smile. "Also, I didn't panic in front of the judges."
Mr. Lee can count himself among the fortunate few who have found positions in just about the tightest job market in the history of the country.
A senior with a degree in public administration from a top university, Mr. Lee said that the six months before he landed the job were like one long nightmare. In April he volunteered to work for his university department in contacting and getting application forms from companies; that way he could always have first crack at the information.
But the job quest was never easy. Mr. Lee had trouble passing companies' preliminary screenings, which require a strong self-introduction statement, excellent college grades and high scores on standardized English tests. Mr. Lee, with a grade point average of 3.7 out of 4.5 and a good score on the Test of English for International Communication, or TOEIC, would have breezed through preliminary screenings in any normal economic period, but this year was a different story.
Mr. Lee explained that the companies emphasize solid English scores not so much for bilingual prowess, but because some companies deem scores on English tests － not necessarily speaking ability － a good indicator of a job applicant's diligence.
Soon after he started his job search, Mr. Lee became inured to rejection. Out of the 20-odd companies he applied to, he only received six chances to prove himself in an interview.
Even worse, one of his friends, Ha Hyun-su, with as many applications, got only one chance, with a large company whose hiring process entailed seven interviews. At the first, he was asked to answer in five minutes why manholes are round. In a nutshell, he argued that a circle is the "most perfect" shape, and consequently is the logical choice for a manhole, squeezing in plenty of deferential phrasings to fill up the time. That passed muster with the interviewers. Mr. Ha held on until the sixth round, when he proved unable to write his grandfather's name in Chinese characters. "Usually they ask you to write just your parents names," he said with a deep sigh.
A job counselor at Yonsei University, Kim Nong-ju, affirmed that job seekers need to be especially dedicated right now to succeed. "In the four years I've worked here, it's never been so hard for me to give guidance," he said. "Now image-making and developing your own strategy are essential for getting a job." Mr. Kim recently began staging interview rehearsals, and says he has streams of students signing up. On average there are 10 applicants for every big firm job opening this year, up from 3 per position last year, he says.
At LG Group, an assistant manager of the human resources department said that preliminary interviews have become more than formalities: Just a few years ago, an interview was merely a process to confirm basic attributes like family background and proper manners. The later interviews were when things got tough. But now, the job seekers must take rigorous aptitude and IQ tests, give presentations and compete in group discussions, right from the beginning. The later interviews have become talent shows, essentially: Sometimes interviewers ask applicants to impersonate popular celebrities. But more often the applicants get desperate and ask to show off what they can do － or how much they are willing to degrade themselves － to demonstrate how motivated they are.
To illustrate, our lucky Mr. Lee was asked once to estimate how many cockroaches there were in Seoul. Another time he was asked whether the company's taekwondo team should be terminated due to its poor record. The first question stumped him, and he declined to take a stab at it. Instead of answering the second, he pretended to be a sportscaster of a soccer game － the final match of the World Cup, between Korea and Japan, however unlikely. "No matter who wins the game," he said, "the ultimate winner is the sponsor of the ad behind the goalpost."
Now Mr. Lee is at ease and proud to be an office worker, while Mr. Ha is facing his coldest winter ever. Most big name companies have frozen their recruitment plans, and Mr. Ha is losing hope. "Most companies put a ceiling on age, generally 28 for those who have served in the army," he explained. "But for others who didn't, the limit is 26; I was exempted from the army and next year I turn 27."
Unsympathetic observers say the applicants are causing their own crisis by applying only for big name companies. Mr. Ha scoffs at that, pointing to custom. "I was conditioned to get into a prestigious university anyway I could in a system of nepotism and school ties," he said. "And now, suddenly people are telling me not to follow these principles; it seems so unfair. I think I'm cursed."
The river has many blockages, the mountain passes are intimidating, and the system may be upside-down, but one thing is certain: Mr. Ha can now write his grandparents' names in Chinese characters.
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