In praise of skilled workers

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In praise of skilled workers

We remember very well which Korean athletes won gold medals at the Vancouver Winter Olympics - Kim Yuna in figure skating and Lee Seung-hoon and Mo Tae-bum in speed skating. All of them became celebrities overnight thanks to their sports and became rich through appearances in TV commercials.

But we suppose few will know who won gold at the 2011 WorldSkills competition in London last week. Despite our remarkable results at the “skills Olympiad” over the years - we have been the champions 17 times and won three consecutive victories starting in 2007 - the public is just not interested. Most do not even know that the international competition for young people in skilled professions takes place every two years.

We cannot afford such disinterest, as our economy thrives on a solid manufacturing base. Yet this year’s winners had to make do with a tiny photo in the industrial section of newspapers and a smattering of applause from their fellow countrymen. During the Park Chung Hee administration, the medalists had the honor of a car parade, not to mention a hefty reward in the amount of 1 million won ($854), which was equal to the price of a house at the time.

But for some time now, they have been subject to very poor treatment to the point where even the gold medalists are dismissed because they are not college graduates. As a result, 70 percent of students at vocational schools try to get into college no matter what the cost.

Fortunately, President Lee Myung-bak has ordered that the medalists be given additional money and benefits related to their compulsory military service. That bodes well for our economy, as we seek to benefit from their unrivaled technical skills. The power of a manufacturing sector comes from the field, and the competitiveness of the field springs from the expertise of skilled workers.

We have a far more important job to do than bicker over such political footballs as free school lunches or cuts in college tuition. For the members of the next generation, it is more important to teach them how to fish rather than giving them one. Whether or not they are receptive depends on how we treat them. Only when we respect their professionalism can Korea boost its global competitiveness. We extend our deep appreciation to the medalists in the recent competition and celebrate their outstanding achievements. We also hope that their success will lead the public to honor all kinds of skill, regardless of the education one received to acquire it.

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