Jobless graduates fearing the futureThe semester was over, but the Yonsei University professor was back in his office. The final grades were in, school was out, and he was wrapping up loose ends before winter break.
He logged on to his e-mail and noticed a message from a student in his international politics class. The message was clear: I’m begging you, please change my B to an F ― I want to flunk this class!
Faced with a jobless future, the senior preferred to fail and retake the class instead of graduating.
The student isn’t alone. As Korea’s economy continues to struggle, the unemployment rate climbed to 3.4 percent in 2003, and the young are particularly affected. According to the National Statistics Office, 8.6 percent of teenagers and adults in their 20s are unemployed, up from 7 percent the previous year.
These figures understate the problem, as the government’s definition of employment includes those working only a few hours a month. The numbers also don’t include those who have given up looking for a job.
According to Park Jin-soo, a committee member of the Korea Employers Federation, including such people would raise the youth unemployment rate up to 10 percent, although he says sometimes “it feels closer to 20 percent.”
For those in the class of 2003, who will be graduating this week, this is dire news. Of the 820,000 people unemployed by government standards, almost 50 percent of them are between the ages of 15 and 29, according to the Ministry of Finance and Economics.
“The young people these days are well educated and have solid English language skills, better than older people currently employed,” says Lim Sung-kyoon, a director at the Office of Tax and Customs with the Finance Ministry. “It’s a loss to our country and a waste of talent that these young adults are not finding employment.”
A flow of applications
One bright young adult facing unemployment is Kwon La-kyung, 23, who is about to graduate Sookmyung Women’s University. Even with extracurricular activities such as a leadership training program, she hasn’t had any luck finding a job.
She applied to 10 companies at first. “Competition is so fierce,” she says. “The students’ abilities are pretty similar, and you never find out why you didn’t get the job.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Kwon has applied to a few more companies and is hoping for the best. But her frustration is growing, as it is with her friends: Two out of maybe 10 friends have jobs, she says.
Submitting resumes to 10 companies may sound like a lot, but it’s less than the average. According to a survey released in January by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, unemployed college graduates submit 11.6 resumes a year on average.
“Some of my friends say you have to apply to 10 jobs a day to land one job,” Ms. Kwon says.
Such stories are well known to Oh Joon-seok, a counselor with the Citizens United for Better Society. The non-governmental society hosted a rally on Jan. 19, when 100 students from 30 universities gathered in front of Gwanghwamun, in Seoul, to publicize the unemployment problem among young adults.
“In December, we saw a report that 400,000 to 430,000 young adults don’t have jobs,” Mr. Oh says. “That’s a serious problem, and the government needs to address it.”
Last week, the Ministry of Finance and Economy proposed tax credits to companies who add new job contracts that last one year or more. The credits are not intended for jobs going to young adults, but because this group makes up almost half of the unemployed, Mr. Lim says they will benefit.
He says the Ministry of Finance and Economics is working with the Ministry of Labor to give tax breaks for new jobs created.
Mr. Park, of the Korea Employers Federation, says that’s not enough. He wants to see tax breaks that take current employees into account. “That’ll free up more money for companies to invest in new employees,” he says.
He also wants to see fewer benefits for older employees. “For years, your age determined your salary. Your talent should determine your salary,” he says, adding that room should be made for new, younger workers.
Expectations clash with the ‘real world’
When Ms. Kwon enrolled in college in 1999, she had no worries about finding a job with her English literature background. “I heard it was easy,” she says. She even took a year off to work as a secretary in a foreign-run company. But after five months in the “real world,” she decided her interest lay in marketing.
However, as her graduation day neared and a slowly expanding job market shrank, her future became murky. So she attended the student rally to bring attention to her plight and the plight of those around her ― but her participation shocked her friends. They were worried that she would be blackballed.
But Ms. Kwon has no regrets. “This was not just for me, but for all young adults. I need to let my voice be heard,” she says.
It seems that many young adults would agree with Kwon’s friends, however. Mr. Oh had difficulty getting students to participate in the rally. “If they can’t find a job, they think the problem is with themselves,” he says.
That’s what Lee Ki-hyun, 27, believes. A 2003 graduate of Korea University, he has applied to almost 40 companies. While he’s made it past the first round more than half of the time, he has yet to pass the interview.
“I have a high GPA and TOEIC scores and various certificates,” he says. “I’m qualified.”
The only reason he’s not getting the job is his weight, he says. “I used to think that ability was more important than appearance, but I haven’t gotten a job. I think it’s because I’m overweight,” he says. He’s gone on a diet and lost four kilograms, but so far it hasn’t helped.
Most jobless young adults now face some hard choices: Do I keep trying? Do I study abroad? Do I attend graduate school?
Some career counselors discourage attending graduate school if the reason is simply to delay entering the job market. One counselor at Ewha Womans University says companies are looking for real world experience, not a doctorate.
“Experience counts,” says the counselor, who asked not to be named. “That time spent in graduate school can be spent working.”
But how can graduates get the experience necessary to get a job if they can’t find a job in the first place? “You have to show prospective employers that you are trying,” the Ewha counselor says. She recommends taking a part-time job in the industry you’re interested in, or trying to improve your TOEIC score.
Kim Jeong-hwan with the career service center at Yonsei says unemployed graduates should also improve their English-speaking skills. Foreign-run companies and Korean conglomerates often require an English presentation. “Most students go abroad if they can’t find a job,” she says.
Others students have deferred graduation to buy more time for job searching. Kim Jin-hee, an Ewha senior majoring in Korean language and literature and women’s studies, was ready to graduate this month. She had finished seven semesters, including a summer studying English in the United States, had a solid GPA and enough credits for an early graduation.
Her dream upon entering college was “to make a sensational movie,” and she was considering the film business. But the tough job market has put her dream on hold.
“I was very disappointed with myself,” she says. She’ll be taking another semester in college and looking into other career options.
Graduating without a job does not spell permanent doom, the two career counselors said. “We’ve had graduates return to the center for advice, and most eventually do land jobs,” says Ms. Kim of Yonsei.
As for the international politics student at Yonsei, he has successfully flunked his class. He has another semester to ponder his future.
by Joe Yong-hee