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More top scientists, engineers needed

Discovering new growth engines has become an urgent priority in the post-global financial crisis environment of slow economic growth. To drive the effort, countries will need legions of top science and technology workers with post-graduate degrees. In this race, Korea is lagging behind many nations. In fact, it will face a severe shortage of highly skilled personnel in promising industries unless decisive policies are implemented.

In recent years, government agencies and research institutions in Korea have identified potential economic engines for the coming decades. After perusing these lists, nine industries stand out: green energy, environmentally friendly technology; transportation and exploration; building a high-tech city; information and communications technology (ICT); robotic technology; new nanomaterials; biomedicine; and high value-added food products.

Korea’s technological competitiveness in these industries was found to be just 57 percent of advanced countries, while its competitiveness in terms of human resources stood at 55 percent, suggesting an acute lack of key personnel.

Taking into account the student enrollments at Korean universities, the nine promising industries will face a shortage of 90,000 experts in the fields of science and technology, or about 10,000 annually from now through 2020, according to a SERI analysis.

The biomedical sector is expected to suffer shortages of 1,400 experts per year from 2013 to 2020, while the ICT sector will likely experience a shortfall of 1,300 people and new nanomaterials 1,200.

The basic problem is that the nation’s dependence on universities to churn out enough postgraduate specialists is inadequate. The SERI analysis found a pronounced shortage of students majoring in math, physics, electric and electronic engineering, machinery/metals and computers/telecommunications.

Both advanced and emerging economies are focusing on fostering advanced knowledge and expertise to weather economic difficulties and secure next-generation drivers. Leading countries in science and technology try to ensure enough personnel in these areas by employing three general strategies: fostering homegrown talent, recruiting overseas experts or both.

Tech powers Germany and Israel emphasize domestic development, while Singapore has been successful in overseas recruiting and allowing prestigious global universities to set up campuses there. Meanwhile, emerging economies, including China and India, have adopted the dual-track strategy in an attempt to catch up with advanced countries. China plans to hire thousands of science and technology personnel from overseas and expand its local reservoir of talent by tens of thousands this decade.

These efforts highlight the fact that Korea has yet to narrow the technology gap with advanced countries as it watches emerging economies like China rapidly approach its levels of expertise. The challenging environment underscores the urgency for systemic programs to produce world class talent and Korea’s need to move beyond being a fast follower to a “pioneer” of next-generation industries. To that end, the nation needs to add more overseas recruiting to its current homegrown approach.

All of this calls for a national plan for the additional 10,000 high-level workers needed per year for the promising industries. First, only the finest science and technology university departments and research institutions should have postgraduate students. This would be a departure from Korea’s approach of spreading support among a large number of schools.

Second, basic research capabilities should be strengthened. This can be done by creating a system which facilitates the fast acquisition of degrees in basic science fields while expanding investment in information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Third, comprehensive management should be strengthened at a government level to manage personnel needs and promote the consistency and effectiveness of policies. This would effectively adjust support programs at government agencies.

Finally, there should be constant recruiting of Korean scientists and engineers, foreign scholars and global research institutions and more policy support, such as residents’ visas, to encourage lengthy sojourns.

by Bae Seong-o

* The writer is a research fellow at the technology and industry department at the Samsung Economic Research Institute. For more SERI reports, please visit

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