Graduates become janitors in fiercely tough job market

The job market for South Korean graduates is becoming tougher as a record number of students look for work. Earlier this year youth unemployment rose above 10% for the first time in almost two decades and stands at around 11% – three times the overall jobless rate, despite the country’s current high economic growth.

The squeeze on graduate employment has sparked headlines such as this one in the Korea Times, “University Graduates Face Fierce Competition to Become Janitors”.

The article referred to a survey of 66 applicants for janitor jobs in one of the districts of the capital Seoul, a third of whom had university degrees. The district hired only four of them – three with university degrees and the fourth with a community college degree.

South Korea has the world’s highest proportion of students going on to university – 70% of high school graduates go on to higher education, and an economic tightening has meant difficult times for university graduates.

Labour Minister Lee Ki-kwon said earlier this year that young jobseekers, including graduates who left university in February, could face the toughest job market since the late 1990s when Asia faced an economic crisis and the youth unemployment rate hit an all-time high of 13.4% in February 1999.

In a survey conducted by the Korea Economic Research Institute and released in October, of some 5,270 university students and recent graduates, more than one third of respondents said they found it more difficult to find a job this year than last year. Only 9% said the job market had somewhat improved.

Amid huge pressure from their parents that the only jobs worth having are those with Korea’s top conglomerates, most jobseekers said they hoped to work for high-paying jobs at conglomerates last year, but in this year's survey they seemed to turn to more secure public companies – with a quarter saying they preferred the state-run sector.

According to a research paper released by Hyundai Economic Research Institute in April, the number of entrants for the civil service examination increased from 185,000 in 2011 to 257,000 last year, with graduates attracted by the security of civil service jobs.

Students and young graduates voted in droves for President Moon Jae-in who won the presidential elections in May, in part promising to ease youth unemployment by creating more jobs in the public sector. He described himself as the “jobs president” during his election campaign.

Moon has said he wants to convert contract workers to permanent positions and create 810,000 new public-sector jobs over the next five years, an increase of more than 60%, which will cost the government US$18 billion.

The government in July implemented blind recruitment, scrapping educational background (to reduce an over-reliance on graduates from a handful of top universities), age, photographs (which led to a boom in plastic surgery), and height and weight statistics on applications for public organisations.

The policy does not affect private sector companies, although the ministry of labour has said it will push a new law against private companies’ irrelevant and often intrusive questions on job applications.

Cram schools

The weak employment situation has meant more competition and even more pressure for students to cram at private cram schools, which mainly cater to those hoping to enter top universities but also prepare graduates for gruelling recruitment tests with big conglomerates like Samsung and LG, known in Korea as chaebol.

Both companies say they will not increase graduate hiring this year, increasing the competition for the positions available.

Hyundai sets a six-hour exam for graduates, while Samsung sets an aptitude test, which last year was taken by some 100,000 graduates to weed out just 5% who go on to the next stage in the hiring process for the company’s entry-level jobs. Young graduates can study up to 15 hours a day for such tests.

Private cram schools exist in Seoul for every professional exam, civil service exams and company entrance tests, with many graduates taking the exams repeatedly in the hope of improving their chances.

A survey published in June by two job sites, JobKorea and Albamon, found that of the 1,147 jobseekers aged 25-30, 83% of them skipped at least one meal a day, and 16.6% only ate once during the day, due to the economic burden often brought on by the expense of attending private cram schools.

“It is better to describe yourself as a student than an unemployed graduate,” said one student in Seoul, who gave her name as Mae-ri. “We carry on doing degrees and passing exams,” she said, pointing to the tendency of chaebols to prefer the most recent graduates.