[Letters]Currency woes = teacher shortage

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[Letters]Currency woes = teacher shortage

On Feb. 20 the Korean won?U.S. dollar exchange rate crossed the psychologically important 1,500 level. While the exchange rate affects many businesses and shoppers in Korea, an often overlooked consideration is how currency rates affect the availability of native-speaker teachers in Korea. The exchange rate is a major consideration when such teachers are considering job options. Teachers are looking globally, so take-home pay really means what one takes home after converting to the home currency.

In terms of recruiting and retaining expatriates, timing is also important.

The final week of February is when last-minute decisions on where to teach may be made. Some teachers decide to cancel flight plans.

Many expatriate teachers are forthright about the problem. Some come to Korea with student loans or other financial obligations in their home countries, and they expect to pocket $300-500 or more each month after their local living expenses. Others consider a $2,000 winter vacation back home or in Southeast Asia as part of the reason to work abroad, and expect to save for them from their monthly earnings. Not a few are supporting family members or funding a pension back home from their Korean earnings.

Exchange rates cut into savings. When converting 600,000 won, an exchange rate of 1,200 buys $500, at 1,500 only $400. In the eyes of many expatriates, that’s a 20 percent pay cut.

Nearly half of all expat teachers stay in Korea for two years or less. They haven’t developed deep ties here, and so English native speakers can easily move to China or Japan, which have not suffered from excessive currency devaluation, or to the high-paying Middle East.

Korea’s “IMF” experience shows how this works. In 1997 the exchange rate ranged from a low of 840 to the historic high of 1,995 won to the dollar. In mid-November the 1,000 level was reached for the first time in many years. By mid-December the rate was fluctuating wildly between 1,450 and 1,700. Expatriate teachers spoke of leaving for richer shores, leaving the profession entirely, or going to less developed lands “since I’m not making any money now anyway.” Christmas Eve was a breaking point, with a historic high of 1,995 won to the dollar.

During the winter university break of 1997?8, with the exchange rate still fluctuating between 1,500 and the high 1,700s, stories grew of flights leaving Korea filled with foreigners, and returning nearly empty. Some of that, of course, is normal vacationing by university teachers and corporate staff. But in early March, with the won still over 1,500, many schools found that teachers who had signed contracts did not return as scheduled. During the first weeks of the spring 1998 school term many universities were scrambling to find native-speaker teachers. The currency downfall also impacted private language schools, hagwon, as more teachers chose to leave mid-contract, and others chose not to sign new contracts, or took offers from desperate universities. Many employers were forced to improve their compensation packages in order to staff their language programs.

This year the currency has done similarly. October 2008 opened at 1,200. Ten days later it reached nearly 1,400, and then wild retreats and climbs between 1,250 and 1,518. December and January were mostly in the 1,300s, but February saw the steady march up to the current rate.

Some would say “good riddance” because many of these teachers have little or no commitment to the country they teach in. And for those who choose to stay, it can mean improved local conditions. But a lack of teachers impacts students because of larger class sizes, and ultimately, in the private language schools, higher fees. Similarly impacted are the prices and availability of high quality international textbooks; high profile scholars’ visits to Korea for professional conferences and teacher training programs decline.

The week of Feb. 23-27 is the time when many university teachers will be boarding planes to return to Korea. Or not.

Robert Dickey, professor, Department of International English and Tourism,Gyeongju University
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