The young are going nowhere
President Park Geun-hye may feel hurt about being misunderstood. She meant well when she had ordered the labor and employment ministry to explore more opportunities for young Koreans to find jobs in the Middle East. She was so concerned about idle youths wasting their time and getting discouraged looking for jobs at home that she wished to direct their sights toward the bigger world outside Korea. She did go a bit overboard by saying, “Let our country be empty of youths by sending them all to the Middle East.”
She made the statement solemnly as if it was a message from heaven. She may have been feeling flush after her trip to the Middle East and might have been making a light joke. The problem is that nobody was laughing. The response was overwhelmingly negative and sarcastic to boot. People wrote on the social networking platforms, “Ms. President, why don’t YOU go to the Middle East?” “It’s not the 70s, Ms. President.” “Those who support the president, send your children and grandchildren to the Middle East to please the madam.”
The fury was felt offline as well. An elderly acquaintance was enraged. “My uncle worked in Saudi Arabia when he was young. I remember him saying that he went off to the desert so that his children won’t have to. But now the government is proposing to send his grandchildren to the Middle East?” One university student exclaimed, “What use is the government if all it can think of as a solution to youth unemployment is to pack them up for abroad?”
The idea itself is not a bad one. The young should not limit their dreams to their small home country. They should explore a bigger world, a larger frontier, while young. Still, I cannot agree to the idea of them simply being packed off to the Middle East. To recycle an idea that had currency in the 1970s, when per capita income was just $800, to people in contemporary Korea, with $30,000 per capita income, is outrageous.
I am not convinced about the co-called second Middle East boom. When South Korea won a deal to build nuclear reactors for the United Arab Emirates during President Lee Myung-bak’s visit there in 2009, various business projects were sought as if the region was a gold mine in the non-oil sector. Healthcare, medical equipment and telecommunications were also dubbed promising business areas. Construction loans and healthcare funds were raised to promote exports. But few developments have been made over the last five years. There is still a possibility that this time may be different. I seriously do hope there are business opportunities in the Gulf for Korean companies.
But the region is hardly a solution for Korea’s youth employment problem. Healthcare, medical equipment and telecommunications are areas that require skilled workers. From the rush of construction bids, the jobs offered will likely be in engineering and building. Specialized jobs are abundant in Korea as well as elsewhere in the world. There won’t be much relief in youth joblessness if our skilled workforce leaves the country to seek jobs outside.
The people who desperately need jobs today are young people without particular experience or skills. Doing construction work in the Gulf region should not be the answer. In the 1970s, a few years of hard labor in the Middle East bought a home and field for farming when the worker returned. It would require almost a lifetime’s work in the desert to earn enough money to buy a home in today’s Korea. It also won’t be easy to find a job upon returning home. Who would be responsible for their livelihoods then? To today’s young generation, the adage that “pain is gain” is not much motivation. They cannot find a job because the jobs they are looking for are in comfortable offices in well-known companies - and in limited supply. Small and mid-sized companies are chronically short of manpower.
Instead of thinking about sending young people to the Middle East, the government should come up with ways to make the small or mid-sized corporate field attractive workplaces. Telling young people to lower their bars is not persuasive. Young people have their own ways of life and needs. Workplaces should satisfy their needs and wishes. In the old days, workers were happy heading to the bar with oily faces after factory labor.
Young people today want to work in a clean, comfortable atmosphere. They need to spend free time shopping and going to dance clubs or cinemas. They require places to enjoy their coffee and hang around. The previous generation gave them such a comfortable environment by working their tails off. Factories should be renovated into smart office-buildings. Industrial complexes must be refurbished with facilities that are alluring to young people. Salaries at small and mid-sized companies, which now pay just 60 percent of what large companies pay, should be upped. More work must be done to increase work at home instead of looking for it elsewhere.
JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 25, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yang Sunny