Vocational school grads say they just can't catch a break

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Vocational school grads say they just can't catch a break

High school students line up at a job fair held in Duksoo High School in Seongdong District, eastern Seoul in October. [NEWS1]

High school students line up at a job fair held in Duksoo High School in Seongdong District, eastern Seoul in October. [NEWS1]

 
The coronavirus pandemic had a huge impact on Korea's job market. But for students in vocational high schools, it’s more like a disaster.  
 
Eight out of 10 vocational high school students in Korea think the coronavirus pandemic has had a "negative impact on their job opportunities." Seven out of 10 students actually feel that the pandemic has "cut their work opportunities."
 
These are some of the findings detailed in a Union Center’s report that was submitted to the presidential Economic, Social and Labor Council. The center interviewed 438 current vocational high school students in Korea or people who have already graduated to figure out the impact of Covid-19 on high school students who attend vocational schools.  
 
Students from vocational high schools prefer to get jobs rather than enter colleges after graduation. Most of them choose vocational schools over general high schools as the schools offer students vocational education and help them to get prepared for employment.  
 
“One of my friends received job offer cancellations from four companies,” said a senior high school student of a vocational high school in Seoul in the report. “We can’t just decide to go college at this point."  
 
"It’s hopeless.”  
 
Some 63 percent of students from vocational high schools answered that they have experienced a delay or cancellation of job offer. Twenty percent of them said they have experienced job offer cancellations before the start date.  
 
But a shortage of job opportunities is not the only issue that those high school students are facing.
 
Most of classes in vocational high schools include practical demonstrations that must be taken as face-to-face classes. But as the classes have been shifted online due to social distancing guidelines, many high school students have lost the chance to learn and build their capabilities to enter the job market.
 
“Whenever we have questions while listening the lectures, we need someone to ask directly,” another vocational high school student told Union Center. “Online classes just don’t work like that.”  
 
Some 55 percent said the number of classes that include practical demonstrations reduced after the pandemic. Roughly 16 percent said the schools held the classes online, but they didn’t work as they're supposed to be.
 
Students are also suffering as many certificate exams have been canceled and delayed due to the social distancing guidelines. For young Koreans, particularly those who have been offered a job right after high school, certain certificate exams such as TOEIC English language tests or computer science exams are often needed to be qualified to apply for companies.  
 
“I gave up a certificate exam as the schedules of two important exams had overlapped due to the delays,” said a senior student who attends a vocational high school in Gwangju. “We usually prepare for those certificates for two years in school, but this time we had to study on our own as we were not allowed to go school.”
 
“This is unfair.”
 
Some students even gave up on employment and are forced to prepare to enter college.  
 
According to Ministry of Education, only 27.7 percent of people from vocational high schools got a job last year. In 2017, it was 50.6 percent.
 
But during the same period, some 42.5 percent of high school students decided to go college, compared with 32.5 percent in 2017.  
 
But Covid-19 is not the only cause, experts say.  
 
“Due to some factors, such as the fourth industrial revolution, there has been a mismatch between the ideal talent that companies want and the students from vocational high schools,” said Kim So-young, an economics professor at Seoul National University. “More companies now prefer experienced workers over new graduates, and that is also an another reason for vocational high school students failing to get jobs.”
 
Some of these students struggle even after they get hired. The poor treatment and discrimination against high school graduates is an issue.  
 
“People from my company often tell me such things as ‘you might not understand this because you have never been to college,’ or ‘you don’t know this because you have never went to college,’” said an office worker who graduated from a vocational high school. “People have this prejudice against high school graduates, and I think this is not a problem that can be solved in a short time.”  
 
Experts say changes in country's attitude toward vocational high school graduates and hiring system are urgently needed.  
 
“Just like how Germany does, Korea should treat high school graduates as same as university graduates in everything including compensation as long as they have expertise on certain sectors,” said Park Young-bum, an economics professor at Hansung University. “Companies should adopt systems that can evaluate their employees based on their experience and performance in the working process, not just by an exam or test.”  
 
BY SOHN HAE-YONG, CHEA SARAH   [chea.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
 
 
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