By Kim Hyun
Like many others her age, Shin So-young, 17, spent her high school days hitting the books and striving to get good grades.
But several months from now, when her friends will be relishing their new-found freedom at college and trying out the latest fashion trends, Shin, a senior at Kyung Gi Commercial High School in central Seoul, will be wearing a uniform and dealing with numbers and customers as a bank teller.
Contrary to common perceptions, however, she is proud of making the transition from learning to earning at an early age.
“I saw no point in going to college on borrowed money,” Shin, who was recently hired by Shinhan Bank, the nation’s third-largest lender, said.
In a country where more than 70 percent, in some years well over 80 percent, of high school graduates move on to the next level of education, a small but growing number of youths are making choices that may moderate the excessive college-for-all trend and leave repercussions on the educational system to some degree.
Behind the new move are big businesses increasing their hiring quota for high school graduates, propelled by the Lee Myung-bak administration’s strong push to boost the job market for youth.
While academic pedigree remains a major consideration in hiring and even finding a spouse in Korean society, these moves have inspired a guarded expectation that times may be changing. Will this upbeat mood stay around long enough to shift social values?
“I see some positive change taking place. The government is strongly pushing for it, and employers are responding,” Chae Chang-kyun, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training in Seoul, said.
“But we have to see whether this drive will go on or pass as a temporary thing.”
The widening employment opportunities seem evident among the graduates of vocational high schools. Government statistics indicate employment of these graduates is bouncing back after hitting the bottom at 16.7 percent in 2009.
The figure rose to 25.9 percent last year, with 29,756 out of 114,690 vocational high school graduates landing a job, and is expected to reach 38.3 percent this year.
There are a total of 654 vocational high schools in the country, whose students are mainly from families in the low income bracket and seek to find employment after graduation.
The overemphasis on university education in the job market, however, has propelled many vocational high schoolers to pursue university acceptance.
That is changing, too. According to a survey released in August by the Seoul Municipal Office of Education, vocational school students who wanted to find work or start their own business after graduation accounted for 22.2 percent this year, nearly twice as much as the figures last year at 11.7 percent.
Those who intended to move on to college decreased significantly to 35.5 percent from 53.6 percent. The survey asked 1,491 first graders from 18 vocational high schools in Seoul.
At Kyung Gi Commercial High School, one of the leading vocational schools, the number of seniors seeking employment nearly doubled to 130, more than half of the total 234 students.
“The atmosphere is changing. We can clearly see that,” Bae Bok-lyeon, one of the school’s teachers involved in employment assistance programs, said.
“Since last year, our top students have been getting jobs in banks and securities firms, which are difficult even for university graduates.”
The improving job prospects stem from a government initiative rather than a market initiative. To support high school graduates who directly bear the brunt of tightening job markets, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology expanded subsidies and tax benefits for small and mid-sized firms, increased recruits of high school graduates and encouraged conglomerates, big banks and public organizations to hire more of them.
Samsung Group, the nation’s biggest conglomerate, increased its hiring quota for high school graduates to 9,100 this year from 8,000 in 2011.
Samsung aims to “diffuse a social atmosphere that one can achieve success without getting a university degree and realize a society where one’s competency is more valued than their educational background,” the group said in a statement earlier this year.
Whereas in the United States youths are encouraged to seek a higher level of education, as President Barack Obama called for more American students to seek a university degree as “the single most important investment you can make in your future,” South Korea’s problem is that too many take that expensive, time-consuming route.
And the overemphasis on college education has caused social problems like excessive spending on education and the mismatch between job seekers and job openings.
There is a deep-rooted academic pedigree in Korea that dates back to the tradition of the Joseon Dynasty, in which the Confucian ideology concentrated wealth and power on the aristocracy and blue color workers like farmers, manufacturers and merchants were looked down upon.
As the tradition continued and people’s living standards increased, the majority of youths headed to universities, and private education spending to get accepted by elite schools skyrocketed.
According to a study by the Hyundai Economic Research Institute in August, more than 3 million Koreans, or 824,000 households, were classified as so-called “Education Poor.” They referred to mostly middle class people in their 40s who had household debt but spent on their children’s education more than the average parent did.
OECD data last year ranked South Korea second only to the United States in terms of university tuition fees, with public universities costing US$ 5,315 and private schools $ 9,586.
Private expenditure on university tuition fees was four times higher than that of the OECD average. Halving tuition fees is a popular but challenging pledge for presidential candidates.
“This university-oriented culture is a huge wall that is very difficult for vocational school teachers to scale,” Yeo Chang-yeop, a school commissioner of the Ulsan Municipal Office of Education, said in a forum on youth job markets in March.
Chae from the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training said steady government support for high school graduates is key to keeping the employment doors open.
“In the market logic, it’s only natural to favor university graduates over high school degrees,” Chae said. “The government should consciously push employers to hire more high school graduates.
“That may help create a virtuous cycle of youths and employment, in which competent ones will be respected and promoted even with (just) high school diplomas.”
The reality, however, is still grim for these young aspirants. Working conditions are poorer and less stable for high school graduates. They work 45 hours a week, compared to 37.2 hours for university graduates, according to data filed by Statistics Korea in 2011.
Only half of them had pension and medical and employment insurances, while the rates reached 68 to 76 percent for university graduates. On average, high school graduates were paid 1,455,000 won (US$ 1,282) per month in 2011, or 77.3 percent of what a four-year university degree earned on average.
“Our concern is that our students may face a wall in promotion and discrimination at work that can’t be helped,” Lee Kyung-sun, another Kyung Gi teacher, said.