For young Koreans, overseas jobs beckonKwon Byung-ji, 28, and Shin Eun-mi, 23, are two of the thousands of Koreans who have applied for work overseas. What separates them from the rest of the crowd is that they are lucky enough to have landed jobs in Japan and are waiting to head there to work as computer programmers.
With an ever-tightening domestic job market, there is a growing trend for Koreans to search for work overseas. According to the Human Resources Development Service of Korea, more than 33,600 people registered with the agency’s Web site last year to look for jobs in foreign countries, though only 540 of them found positions. The number of newly registered job seekers at the site has been increasing rapidly, from 5,520 in 2001 to 14,481 in 2003.
The types of jobs Koreans are applying for and their locations are as diverse as the applicants’ backgrounds: nurse in the United States, Canada and Saudi Arabia; computer programmer in Japan; Korean language instructor in Japan and the Philippines; flight attendant for airlines based in the Middle East, and shipping specialist in China.
The agency has a range of government-sponsored training programs to prepare these people to find a career in foreign countries. For example, Mr. Kwon and Ms. Shin finished a 10-month program in Japanese and Java programming at JoongAng ITEA, an information technology education center run by the parent company of the JoongAng Ilbo and this newspaper. The program was rigorous, involving daily four-hour sessions in Japanese language and another four hours for Java. According to Lee Jung-youn, marketing team manager at JoongAng ITEA, 95 percent of those who complete the classes are successful in finding positions in Japan.
Chung Se-young, 25, is another beneficiary of the agency’s programs. Ms. Chung, who studied Chinese language at Duksung Women’s University, now works in a city near Shanghai for a Korean firm, KCH International Logistics. Ms. Chung had received training in shipping operations at the agency for six months before she left for China last August.
“I really wanted to work in China,” Ms. Chung says. “I will have a chance to get hands-on experience in China, an opportunity most entry-level employees in Korea cannot have.”
“I was looking for IT-related jobs, and came across this program designed to provide positions in Japan,” says Mr. Kwon, who majored in trade at Yeungnam University in North Gyeongsang province. For a year, he worked as a salesman for Lotte Canon, a distributor of office equipment. “I intend to work in a larger market and gain advanced knowledge. Learning Japanese is a plus,” he adds.
No matter what their original motivations were, the employment issue is one of these applicants’ biggest concerns, since the overall unemployment rate stands at 3.5 percent, but is 7.9 percent for those between the ages of 15 and 29.
“When I graduated from university, there weren’t many job opportunities available to me,” says Ms. Shin, who studied Japanese at Daejeon University. “I wanted to take advantage of what I studied and learn additional skills to complement my studies.”
Most graduates who majored in Japanese end up working for trading firms, and their starting salary is too low ― under 20 million won ($19,000) a year, Ms. Shin says.
“I thought about working in Korea too, but I would feel uneasy working here. I wouldn’t know when I might be laid off and if I got laid off, I wouldn’t know where to start again,” Mr. Kwon says, adding that the programming job market is already saturated in Korea and the wages are very low. “I didn’t think I would be able to save any money.”
Beginning 40 years ago, a large number of Koreans went overseas as a way to escape poverty. Hundreds of nurses and miners headed off to Germany in the 1960s, and thousands of people went to the Middle East in the 1970s as construction workers. As the construction boom slowed in the Middle East, the number of Koreans leaving the country dwindled in the 1980s. Since the 1997-98 economic crisis resulted in mass layoffs, the effort to find jobs abroad has revived.
People like Mr. Kwon and Ms. Shin differ somewhat from those who sought overseas work previously. “In the past, laborers went overseas and performed work that didn’t require skills,” said Kwon Young-seon, an official at the Human Resources Development Service of Korea. “Those who leave Korea nowadays are professionals who work in a field where Koreans have a competitive edge in terms of wage.”
Mr. Kwon will be paid 25 million won a year working for a Japanese company, Alfanet, while Ms. Shin was hired by PDS, a Japanese company owned by a Korean, and will receive 33 million won. While the salaries are relatively low, Ms. Lee of JoongAng ITEA says, Japanese companies traditionally have better pension systems. According to Ms. Lee, the wage level is close to the average starting salary in Japan.
Although Ms. Chung did not give an exact number, she says her compensation is one and a half times that of her counterparts in Korea, because she is entitled to extra income for working in a foreign country. She says she is able to save more than half of her income.
Asked why these countries are hiring Koreans, Ms. Lee says, “In Japan, information technology programming jobs are considered unpopular and there is an insufficient supply of programmers.”
Ms. Lee says that programming often involves around-the-clock shifts, and young Japanese adults tend to shun these kinds of jobs. She adds that Koreans are as capable as the Japanese and are quick to learn the Japanese language because of the similarities between Korean and Japanese.
“In developed countries, people avoid science and engineering fields as much as Koreans do. That’s why they need to outsource workers to make up for the insufficient number of engineers and scientists,” Mr. Kwon of the agency says.
He notes, however, that the positions offered to Koreans are not the so-called “3D” ― dirty, difficult and dangerous ― jobs. “The types of jobs Koreans get in Japan are not low-paying jobs.”
While working abroad has advantages, such as learning a foreign language and culture, there are drawbacks as well.
“Living alone and dealing with foreigners is stressful,” Ms. Chung says. “Inexperienced employees who come here to work face difficulties such as low wages, as opposed to managerial-level expatriates, but they endure because of the dream and goals they have brought.
“People who go overseas for work because they think working abroad sounds fancy will have a hard time,” she adds.
Ms. Chung says she plans to work in China for at least three years, while Mr. Kwon plans to remain abroad even longer. He wants to work for at least 10 years in Japan and then move to another country, like New Zealand.
“I took an English language course in New Zealand. The country was spacious and people were generous. I thought that it would be a nice place to live if I had enough money,” Mr. Kwon says, adding that the country is open to immigration by information technology workers.
Asked whether it is sad to decide to leave Korea for good like the miners and nurses who went to Germany and eventually settled there, Mr. Kwon says, “I feel sorry to think about leaving my family and friends and the country where I spent my whole life, and to live in a foreign land. It will be lonely, and there will be hardships. But, once I settle down, it won’t be that bad. It might be enjoyable.
“I lived in Korea for 30 years and it would be nice to live elsewhere for the next 30 years,” he says.
Those who intend to come back to Korea also have concerns.
“Since I am working in a foreign country, and do not have work experience in Korea, I am afraid that it might be a disadvantage for me when I return to Korea,” Ms. Chung said.
“From now on, more people should give thought to taking a job overseas rather than just focusing on the domestic job market,” Mr. Kwon of the agency said. “If they are able to speak the language of a designated country and have the necessary skills, it might be easier to land jobs overseas than in Korea.”
by Limb Jae-un