Blue-collar work force going gray
“There are so many workers in their 50s that I am considered below average by age,” Lee said. “There are some new [young] workers joining us, but they are mostly foreigners.”
Concerns are rising as the average age of employees working at manufacturing facilities in Korea is on the rise, which can eventually create a generation gap in handing down techniques and skills.
This isn’t a story of only small and midsize companies operating factories, but also of large companies.
When the labor union of Hyundai Motor launched a partial strike against the management, demanding a wage hike among other requests, the management pointed out that workers already receive a lot of money.
The union, however, countered management’s claim by referring to the average age of workers. The union group argued that “the wage isn’t big considering the average age  of workers in technical posts.” The argument shows that production workers at Hyundai Motor in Korea are getting older.
Meanwhile, the average age of production workers at Hyundai Motor’s manufacturing plant in China is only 24 years old.
Workers at industrial sites in Korea are aging and there are concerns that technical know-how will not be handed down to young employees as they are becoming increasingly reluctant to take positions in the blue-collar work force.
Industry insiders note that once production workers in the baby boom generation - those born between 1955 and 1963 - retire, it will be difficult to find experienced workers to carry on the manufacturing process.
According to the Korea International Trade Association (Kita) and the Institute for International Trade on Sunday, the average age of all employees at companies in Korea increased from 40.3 years old in 2000 to 44.6 years old this year.
The average age of production workers during the same period, meanwhile, went from 40.9 years old to 48.3 years old.
Kita data showed the average age of workers in the agriculture, forestry and fishery sector, for example, was 62 years old.
In the service sector, with more middle-aged women taking sales positions, the average age was more than 50 years old, while in the mining and manufacturing sector it was 41.9 years old.
With an increase in the average of age of production workers, the workforce structure has turned into an inverted pyramid where almost half - 48.3 percent - of production workers are more than 50 years old and only 8.8 percent are young workers in between 15 and 29 years old.
“The percentage of young people at production sites is too small for the baby boom generation that led industrialization to pass on their experiences, skills and work know-how,” said Oh Ho-young, a researcher at the Institute for International Trade. “The coming 10 years will be the last opportunity for Korea’s [aging] workers to pass on their expertise to young people.”
The outlook for a manpower shortage is even grimmer at SMEs in the manufacturing sector.
A Korea Federation of Small and Medium Business survey of 2,101 SMEs released Sunday showed they are short of qualified workers by 9.6 percent. According to the survey, four out of five SMEs responded that because of manpower shortages, they have no choice but to hire foreign workers.
“The government should expand the quota for hiring foreign workers next year to resolve manpower problems at SMEs’ production facilities,” the federation said in a statement.
BY Kim Young-Hoon and Kim Young-Min [firstname.lastname@example.org]