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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Searching For Mr. Good Job

The Hong Man Statue on the campus of Yeungnam
University. He has a lot on his mind

He looks vaguely disconcerned, carrying the load of a weighty problem instead of a heavy backpack, so commonly associated with today's college students. The Hong Man statue (홍만동상) is the university's popular meeting point, near the center of campus and a stone's throw from the library. But he is more. He may be the university's unofficial mascot--an unintended metaphor for the thousands of Korean students who ponder their future after college.

Korea had famously earned the title of Asian Tiger due to its incredible economic growth since the early 1970's. But that growth is cooling. Korean middle class households shrank from 75.4% in 1990 to 67.5% in 2010. Fifty-five percent of middle class families are having a tough time making ends meet as they are increasingly burdened by debt, according to McKinsey. There has been a drop in the number of high paying jobs with major business conglomerates--so idolized here in Korea. From 2002-2010 there has been an average decline of 2% a year in domestic hiring by major manufacturers. And the household savings rate fell from 20% in 1994, to just 3% in 2012--the lowest among the OECD countries.

Korean college students are facing this challenging environment. There are simply not enough good jobs for all the highly educated people entering the economy. More and more young people are being forced to take jobs they are overqualified for.

Here are snapshots of seven Yeungnam University college students who are pondering their future. These students shared their perspectives in English, speaking in a second language. Six are undergraduate students serving as volunteers at the university's Foreign Language Institute. One is a graduate student working as a staff assistant.  I asked each of them the following question: What is the most important thing on your mind these days?

Here are their stories...

Park Min Jin, 25: "When I write,  I'm happy"
Park Min Jin is bright and thoughtful. A senior, she is majoring in English Literature, with a minor in International Trade. For Min Jin, the most important thing on her mind, reflecting the recent tensions here on the Korean peninsula, is the conflict between North and South Korea. "I am thinking about a possible Korean war," she said. Referring to North Korea's young new president Kim Jung Un, she added, "Kim is too young and he may do something stupid. His father and grandfather had experience--they were able to control their people." Living near a U.S. military base in Daegu has Min Jin worried.

The second most important thing on her mind involves a dilemma about her career. "I am thinking about my dream. I love writing and meeting new people and I love hearing their stories. My parents don't want me to be a writer. They want me to use my English speaking skills at a big Korean company, like Samsung." This challenge, of navigating toward one's personal dream, in a world of strong and conflicting parental preferences, is reflected in the stories of many students who are about to enter Korea's job market.

Cheong Young Yuk: "Here in Korea most people will judge
your success by what car you drive, your house, and what
area you live in"
Cheong Young Yuk, a senior, was quick to respond when asked what was on his mind these days. "I want to do something, but I can't," he said. "I want to get into martial arts or have a pub." I asked him why he said this wouldn't be possible. "These two ideas could only be hobbies, not a real job," he responded. "My dream is small. I want to be happy. My dream is having a family with three children. But, I will need a lot of money. I need to be able to support them. A job is one option to realize that dream."

Young Yuk explained his situation, "Everyone forces me to have a job--parents, professors, friends. The only thing they seem to ask about is jobs. 'What company?' 'How is your studying going?'" Said Young Yuk, "I have to think about it. I have to think about it all the time."

Kim Ji Hyun, 25: "I will follow my own path"
Kim Ji Hyun is a first year graduate student pursuing a master's degree in English Education. Being a graduate assistant in the Foreign Language Institute and working with foreign language professors, informs what is on her mind these days. "This job allows me to have many experiences that are helpful to my major. I really enjoy the English that is all around me." Says Ji Hyun, "I am happy to speak with and meet foreign professors and to practice my English. My experiences here will help my future English students."

But an important test awaits Ji Hyun. This too is on her mind these days. "After graduation, I want to be an English teacher. So, I have to take the Teachers' Qualification Exam. Thinking about that future exam makes me nervous. If I don't pass the exam, I will need to find another job--possibly needing to go abroad to teach Korean to foreign learners." Then Ji Hyun added, "My parents are worried about my marriage plans because of my age. There is pressure from them to pass the exam at once and to think about my age and marriage." Like many of her fellow students, parental pressure plays a role in her future plans. But, added Ji Hyun, "I am not worrying about this. To me, it doesn't matter what age I will be when I get married. It could be 25, 30, 35 or 40. I will follow my own path."

Kim Young Kyung, 26: "My age is not really young for
getting a job in Korea. Most companies prefer people in
their early 20's"
Kim Young Kyung, a senior completing her last semester at Yeungnam University, is majoring in English Literature and Language and minoring in Media and Communications. What's on Ms. Kim's mind these days? "Thinking about my job after graduating. I want to be a news anchor broadcasting the news. That job," says Young Kyung," is very competitive in Korea." Without missing a beat, she added, "My parents want me to work for a large company--to get a stable job with a high salary."

Young Kyung also finds that she is spending a lot of time thinking about relationships. "Meeting with people when I was younger was easier," she said. "The older I get, the harder it is to get to know others--to get the closeness of high school and middle school friendships." But other kinds of relationships occupy her thoughts as well. "I am also thinking about boyfriends and marriage. As a freshman, I was interested in my friends, not in dating. Now," she says, "most of my friends have boyfriends, so I am thinking a lot about boyfriends and marriage--what kind of person will I meet?"

Bae Su Hyun, 25: "My parents have supported me for
25 years, so I need to support myself from now on"
What's on the mind of junior Bae Su Hyun? It's all about putting the pieces in place for a future job. "I need some more certifications, for example in computers, Korean history, Korean language and Chinese characters and," he continued, "to improve my grades." His GPA is now 3.9. He says he needs to push it up to 4.1.

But there is more, much more, to Su Hyun's career preparation plans. To be a stronger candidate he believes that he needs to get more volunteer activities under his belt. "I need to do volunteer work to support someone else's organization, for example, in the area of fundraising," says Su Hyun."Here in Korea big corporations have their own favorite charities. I need to do something so that I have something to tell them when I have a job interview. I always find myself thinking about this; how can I describe this kind of experience on a job interview?"

There was yet another matter on Su Hyun's mind these days--the conflict here on the Korean peninsula. "I am thinking about the Korean conflict. This is true for many of my friends and me. It is a common thing for us." He continues, "When I read the articles in the New York Times and hear other news from abroad, it looks really serious. Japan said if North Korea is going to start a war, then Japan will attack first. I think that would be really terrible. If Japan attacks our peninsula first, it is going to be hell."

Seo Yeon Jeong (Olivia), 24: "I want to join a cosmetics
company. I want a job in international marketing"
Majoring in English language and literature, with a minor in media and communication, Seo Yeon Jeong, said "getting a job after graduation," was the most important thing on her mind these days. Olivia (her English name) added a touch of both pragmatism and philosophy to our conversation. On the practical side, she noted that she is "currently taking a job search strategy course," adding "I am told you need a lot of skills" for a potential role in international marketing in the cosmetics industry that she aspires to. "Also key, is the university's reputation," she added. But Olivia has also been thinking about human relations. "Dealing with people is the hardest part of life,"she said. She has been reflecting on her relations with both family and friends. "Be slow and careful in judging people," Olivia noted. That sounded like sage advice indeed.

Lee Jin Kyung: "Students are under a lot of pressure here."
Where does the pressure come from? "From society"
Lee Jin Kyung, now a senior, took a year off from Yeungnam University to study English in Toronto, Canada. "It was really a good experience," she noted. "I made many friends from many different countries." She did volunteer work while living in Toronto. "It was the happiest time in my life." She summarized her multi-cultural experience there by adding, "I became friends with a French person, a Japanese person and lived with a gay guy in a homestay."

When asked about what is currently on her mind, Jin Kyung said, "The most important thing on my mind these days is finding a suitable job. I am searching for marketing and accounting jobs." And she added, "I don't yet know what fits me."

Another matter on her mind is her final year at Yeungnam University. "I am trying to make this last year of my schooling a beautiful year for me. I am trying to meet many friends and create good memories." With Cherry Blossoms the focus of many peoples' attention recently, Jin Kyung was a bit reflective, "For me, the Cherry Blossoms bring sadness because I know this is my last year here."

There is a rumor amongst students here at the university. It goes something like this: Hong Man (he of the statue) is sad. He is depressed. He has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Hong Man is like many of the students about to graduate from Yeungnam University. They have studied hard and diligently for many years. They have hopes and dreams. There are many things expected of them, by many people.

These Korean students, and perhaps thousands more, are searching for Mr. Good Job. One wonders how many will find him.


  1. Very interesting. Looking forward to read more about Yeungnam and Korea.

  2. I really enjoyed this Steve and it puts faces on statistics that we hear so much about. The job market is increasingly competitive and having sat on the other side of the table and interviewed hundreds of college grads, this puts the reality of their situations into clearer view.

  3. Great piece Steve, and a reminder of the important role English plays in the life/career preparation activities of Korean university students. The fact that you were able to conduct these interviews proves it!

  4. A post made on behalf of Doug Larche...
    Your piece manages to demonstrate the universality of the needs and insecurities of students the world over - Mr. Good Job and Mr./Ms. Goodbar - while at the same time layering in the two issues of war and heightened parental pressures and expectations that exist in such dramatic fashion here for our students in Korea. Admittedly, this sample reflects a strong avocational interest in English, but, as John pointed out, the role that English plays seems to be firmly entrenched in the ethos of our general student population. Thanks, Steve, for the good and thoughtful insights - and for giving air to the personal stories of these students who contribute so much to our lives at F.L.I.

  5. Thanks for sharing these glimpses of your students. As my seniors are also poised to graduate from Maine College of Art, I see parallel concerns and anxieties. The prospects for artists seem even more slim, as all of them will need to get a "day job" to pay the bills while searching for freelance work to establish their illustration careers. Pressures from parents never end.

  6. Steve,

    Enjoyed this glimpse into young people in another culture with the same concerns as our young people, who also are affected by war - truly one world now. How long have these students been at university? I noticed they are 24, 25. How does their education system work?

  7. Thank you for giving me this time to think about my own life seriously~^^
    Nowadays I am going to make some "Action Plans" to fulfill my dream. It was really good chance to think about who I am and what kind of things I have to do.
    Thanks again and I really enjoyed my interview~^^

  8. Steve, I am Jin. After sharing my idea about building a website for my country, I've come straight to the computer room in the business school.
    I've just read this post and found there is tremendous pressure pressing down on most students as we discussed. Since Korea is a small country with large population, high competition in the job market and in the sociey is inevitable and there are so many problems we have to confront such as inequality in wealth, education and between companies. But I hope my idea could be realized and help the country address these seemingly unsolvable problems. It was really great talking to you today.