Russians are coming with high-tech skillsThe office, an array of desks and partitions, has a look common to many high-tech start-up companies in southern Seoul, where casually dressed researchers fill the cubicles. But what makes this office stand out are the two Caucasian men sitting side by side, intently watching computer monitors. The men are Russians who have taken jobs for which no Koreans are available.
Stanislav Gritsutenko and Vladimir Trukhin, both software developers, are just two of the thousands of highly skilled workers from Russia who are employed by domestic companies because of an inadequate supply of well-trained scientists and engineers in Korea.
For the last few years, there has been a steady flow of Russian scientists and engineers to Korea as an increasing number of local companies have hired them.
According to the Immigration Bureau, 580 Russian scientists and engineers entered the country on E-3 or E-7 work visas in 2001 (the number may include reentries). The number was 614 in 2002 and 362 last year.
“Large companies in Korea are taking away all eligible [local] candidates, and small and midsize companies try to recruit them from outside,” says Park Seong-tae, an official at the Small Business Corp., an advocacy group for small and medium-sized companies in Korea.
Businesses lament that while local universities produce graduates who have general experience in the fields that are in demand, it is difficult to find people with specific skills.
The situation is somewhat better for large companies, such as Samsung and LG, that can afford to hire the prime local scientists and to open research and development facilities in such locations as Russia to train scientists.
Fueling the migration, the government has also aided small and medium-sized companies in hiring foreign scientists and engineers by giving a 10 million won ($9,000) grant per employee through the Small Business Corp., in a bid to ease the problem.
Last year, 53 companies sought Small Business Corp. assistance in the search for suitable scientists and engineers from former Soviet Union states, including Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. That is up from 49 in 2002 and 27 in 2001. The areas of specialization sought by local companies are telecommunications, aerospace and information technologies, according to Mr. Park.
Smaller manufacturing companies outside Seoul have suffered the most from the lack of qualified scientists and engineers, says Choi Youn-sun, an official at Russian Brain, a human resources company that specializes in recruiting Russian scientists and engineers.
“It is difficult for a small or midsize company to find suitable employees in Korea, especially those with work experience,” says Ahn Jun-young, chief engineer of Pulsus Technologies Co., which produces a digital amplifier system chip for DVD players. “They would rather go to large companies, not a start-up like us.”
Mr. Gritsutenko, 38, and Mr. Trukhin, 30, who both have master’s degrees from Russian universities, have been developing software for a digital signal processor, or DSP, chip to be used in mobile phones at Pulsus Technologies. Mr. Ahn says the two scientists have made considerable contributions to the development of the chip, which is in its final pre-production stage.
Before moving to Pulsus, they worked for different companies, which sponsored them a couple of years ago.
Experience on military projects
According to Mr. Ahn, many Russian scientists and engineers in Korea previously worked on military projects, as is the case with Mr. Gritsutenko and Mr. Trukhin, who gained experience in developing software for digital signal processors, devices that the company is now developing.
“State support for military and aerospace-related research dropped significantly in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed, and the scientists and engineers turned to the private sector,” Mr. Park says. “But there were not enough jobs so they started looking for positions overseas.”
Yuri Tereshchenko, chief researcher at Ceyon Technology Co., is an example.
“In Korea, I can find a job in my specialty, and now it is easier for an electronic chip design engineer to find a job in Korea than in Russia,” says Mr. Tereshchenko, who says he helped design the telecommunications systems for the Mir space station.
In his two months at Ceyon Technology, Mr. Tereshchenko has been developing a radio frequency identification, or RFID, reader. The reader picks up signals from RFID chips that are often used in identification cards and transportation payment cards. RFID chips are expected to be used in cash register and inventory applications in stores and replace barcode systems.
Ceyon Technology decided to hire Mr. Tereshchenko because of his extensive experience in research and development in the field, says Kim Yong-soon, the director of the company’s software department.
“RFID technologies were relatively new and we had to start from scratch,” Mr. Kim says. “We needed someone with broad experience in solving technological problems, and there happen to be many Russians with that kind of experience. We once hired Korean employees for similar work, but they didn’t meet our expectations.”
Mr. Kim says that when he worked for CAS, a domestic maker of digital scales, he saw many Russian scientists in the company’s Korean and Russian research facilities. The company benefited from employing Russian scientists, and they were highly productive, he adds.
In addition to technological competence, the biggest factor in employing Russian scientists and engineers is their salary. Although employers are reluctant to discuss the matter, it is apparent that the Russian employees have been paid less than their Korean counterparts with similar qualifications. “We cannot provide as many benefits to employees as large companies,” says Gene Kim, general manager at Pulsus.
Explaining why the company imported engineers from such places as Russia, he says, “There is only a small pool of engineers and scientists in Korea, and bringing workers from countries like the United States and Ireland would cost much more.”
The Russian employees declined to discuss their salary, but when asked whether they are satisfied, Mr. Gritsutenko laughs and says, “You can never say one’s salary is enough.”
Earning more than in Russia
But Mr. Tereshchenko confirms that he is earning more than he did in Russia for the same type of work.
Aside from the compensation issue, the Russians have found other reasons to work in a country that is very different from their own.
“It is useful to work in Korea. We can upgrade our knowledge,” Mr. Gritsutenko says. “Beside that, Korea is advanced in terms of technologies.”
“The crime rate is very low,” Mr. Trukhin says. “I don’t need to worry about things other than work.”
Yet the Russians do experience difficulties, primarily in communicating with Koreans. “Whenever I tried to tell taxi drivers my destination, they just didn’t understand,” says Mr. Gritsutenko, who uses the nickname Stas at work instead of the hard-to-pronounce Russian name Stanislav.
Asked about the stresses they face in working for the company or working in Korea, Mr. Gritsutenko says, “They are typical for any country, not special to Korea. A job is a job. If you don’t have any problem at all, it is as if you’re not alive.”
He adds, “If I work late, our president treats us to dinner. It’s a type of compensation for our job.”
“The cultures are different, as well as the relationship between people,” Mr. Tereshchenko says. “The only thing that’s the same is technology.”
There also are family issues, especially involving their children.
Speaking of his four-year-old son, Mr. Trukhin says, “He feels lonely. He has no friends here.
“There are kindergartens for foreigners, such as American and European kindergartens, but they are incredibly expensive,” he adds. “With my salary, I can’t pay for that.”
Despite the difficulties, these Russians seem to enjoy Korea, and say their wives also like living here.
“Korea has a good climate and good people,” Mr. Gritsutenko says. “In winter, I go skiing at a mountain resort. I also like to climb mountains and visit the East Sea and Yellow Sea.
“I have fun living in Korea. If I were not satisfied, I would leave,” he adds.
Mr. Tereshchenko comments, “It is more comfortable for engineers to work in Korea than in Russia.”
From time to time, Russian Brain, the human resources firm, also organizes meetings for Russian expatriates in Korea.
A number of the companies have come to think of their Russian employees as a significant part of their workforce.
“We don’t regard them as provisional employees, and we want to share the company’s future together,” says Pulsus’s Gene Kim. “They seem to be surprised by how they are being treated and appreciate it very much.”
He adds, “We try to treat them equally with other Korean employees.”
However, sharing a company’s vision does not mean that everything is shared. “The company would neither disclose core technologies to Russians, nor rely on them for core technologies,” Pulsus’s Mr. Ahn says.
The situation may change
Many small and midsize companies appear to have benefited so far from the relatively low-cost labor and technological skills provided by the Russian scientists and engineers, but that situation may change.
As Russia is becoming more industrialized and more multinational companies are setting up research institutes there, local companies may not be able to employ Russian scientists and engineers at relatively lower costs for much longer.
“The wage gap between Russian and Korean scientists and engineers is narrowing as the wage level and living standard in Russia is improving rapidly,” Russian Brain’s Ms. Choi says.
“Russia has made progress, as many multinational companies, such as Intel, Motorola, Samsung and LG, have opened research institutes,” Mr. Gritsutenko says. “Employment in Russia is getting better.”
He adds that while it would not be easy to find similar work in Russia, it is not impossible.
“Many Russians who worked in Korea are moving back to Russia. They can earn a salary comparable to that in Korea,” Mr. Trukhin says.
Mr. Park says the number of Russian scientists newly entering Korea is declining amid Russia’s economic progress.
“In the midst of a shortage of eligible scientists and engineers, a company that staffs its workforce with people of different nationalities can remain competitive,” Gene Kim says. “Without such efforts, small and midsized companies wouldn’t be able to survive the prevailing shortage of skilled employees.”
by Limb Jae-un