Non-Korean White-Collar Jobs Still Limited to Language Skills

Non-Korean White-Collar Jobs Still Limited to Language Skills

Steven Borowiec
Steven Borowiec

Before entering the Job Fair for Foreign Residents in 2017, each foreigner filled out a form and was outfitted with a lanyard that displayed a version of their name written in the Korean Hangeul script, with their country of origin in a smaller font below.

Few events can rival job fairs for stiffness of atmosphere. Almost no one at a job fair really wants to be there, but everyone knows they must put on their most enthusiastic, presentable face. Anyone who has ever looked for a job knows that it isn’t much fun to put oneself in front of a procession of companies while trying to convince them (and yourself) that you’re the right person for the job.

The fair was organized by Seoul Global Center, a government body, and held at COEX Convention Center, a sterile, high-ceilinged venue in Gangnam district. Outside the main entrance, crowds of people, almost all of whom appeared to be in their 20s or 30s, of mixed origins with many from China, Russia and Southeast Asian countries, stood in lines waiting to enter the fair and see what employment opportunities were available for them.

Organizers also made efforts to help non-Korean job-seekers address the superficial dimensions of the employment market. At a booth named “Image Making,” job seekers could receive advice on how to take the best photos to accompany their resume, and how to best do their makeup before a job interview.

Studies of South Korea’s demographic structure indicate that the country’s population is aging and may start to shrink. An increasingly small portion of the country will be working age, with fewer economically active people to support the growing numbers of elderly folks who receive government pensions and require more health care.

According to Statistics Korea, as of 2016 there were 962,000 foreign workers in the country, up from 760,000 in 2013 (27 percent of whom are employed in unskilled work, 23 percent on short term assignments and 4.7 percent in skilled work).

Despite the country’s reputation as an insular place, the job fair is a reminder that the government does see foreigners as having some kind of place here. A look around the venue provided some insight into what kinds of companies specifically target non-Koreans in their recruiting, and by extension what holes in the South Korean economy foreigners are expected to fill.

To be fair, the job fair is an insufficient measuring tool because it is primarily concentrated on white-collar occupations. The fair doesn’t take into consideration the reality that most of the foreigners in South Korea are working in blue-collar jobs; in factories, farms and the like, where manual labor is desperately needed. 

Top Demand: Language Skills

The information packet distributed to attendees of the job fair shows that most of the participating companies tended to be on the small side, with between 20 and 50 employees (with exceptions — Woori, one of South Korea’s main banks, was among the recruiters and lists 14,989 employees; also on the docket was EV, a health products purveyor with a total of one employee).

The most obvious reason to recruit foreigners is language proficiency. Even a cursory glance at the fair brochure reveals a demand for employees who can translate or edit texts in foreign languages. And many South Koreans study foreign languages to get a leg up in the job market, and there is a large industry of businesses providing instruction, many of which hire native speakers as teachers.

Fely Kwak, Recruitment and Curriculum Manager for YBM Net, a language education company, said her company had come to the job fair to expand its pool of part-time language instructors. “Our main business is English instruction, but we’re always short on people who can teach Arabic or Vietnamese,” Kwak said.

She said YBM specializes in corporate education, and has identified Chinese and Spanish as languages with growing demand for instruction. Kwak explained that YBM is only looking to hire holders of F-series visas (mostly ethnic Koreans from developed countries and spouses of South Korean nationals), who are able to work legally in South Korea and aren’t tied to a single company. Hiring F-series visa holders also spares companies the effort and expense of sponsoring a worker’s visa, a complicated process that requires the company to convince the government that there were no suitable South Korean candidates for the position, and that it was necessary to hire a foreigner.

Kwak was overseeing two booths that both had rotating casts of job seekers being interviewed by YBM staff. “So far, so good,” she said.

Along with education, there were a number of firms that work selling South Korean cosmetics to China and Southeast Asia, a semiconductor manufacturer and Halal Korea, a firm that provides marketing, certification and consulting services related to Halal food products.

All such companies have international interests that make employees with networks and language skills in overseas markets desirable.

International Sensibility, Comfort with Korea

Some companies seek foreigners who can combine an international sensibility with experience working in South Korea. Gordon Dudley, CEO of Research Direct International, a firm that provides management training, came to the job fair to recruit for two positions. “We’ve been looking for a while, hoping to find someone who knows the local market,” Dudley said.

For many international recruiters, that is a particular challenge — finding candidates that bring an international sensibility but are also comfortable functioning in a Korean-style organization. Duncan Harrison, Country Manager for Robert Walters, a recruitment consultancy with operations in 28 countries, says that South Korean business culture presents some unique challenges when it comes to placing foreign professionals, as South Korean companies tend to have hierarchical structures and rigid pecking orders that can stifle the free exchange of ideas.

“If a foreigner comes here and works at Samsung they might be sold on the dream of working at a great company, but there’s often a mismatch when they start working there. It’s such a top-down society and that’s not changing any time soon,” Harrison told Korea Exposé at the Robert Walters office in central Seoul.

Robert Walters’s business is focussed on recruiting bilingual South Korean candidates for international companies, but also works on placing international professionals in the South Korean job market. In most of those cases, Harrison said, the candidate has a personal or family connection to South Korea, though there are cases of professionals from the tech or gaming industries who are interested in working here.

In recent years there have been cases of South Korean companies attempting to phase out workplace hierarchy in order to do away with the kind of rigidity that foreigners, and younger South Koreans, tend to find off-putting. This involves eliminating the use of job titles and having co-workers all address each other by name with an honorific suffix (colleagues typically address each other by title in Korean workplaces). But creating horizontal workplaces can “backfire,” Harrison said. “The problem is when companies do that, people won’t accept job offers because they don’t have that specific job title.”

But Harrison said the situation is evolving, and South Korea’s younger generation will gradually make changes to the country’s workplace culture; if that culture becomes less hierarchal, it’s more likely that foreigners will have an easier time adapting. Harrison said, “Among young people there’s a recognition that they prefer to work in a flat organization and have their voices heard, but that’s still a ways off.”

Mismatch Between Desire and Demand

Barry Welsh, 38, an eight-year resident of Seoul from the U.K., came to South Korea as an English instructor, and since then has acquired credentials including a Master’s degree in teaching that allowed him to move up the English instruction ladder to a full-time job teaching at Dongguk University.

He came to the job fair out of curiosity at what kind of positions were on offer. He said none of the recruiting companies looked quite right for him. Like many English instructors in South Korea, Welsh has looked to branch out into work in media and arts, holding lecture and film screening events and contributing columns to local newspapers. “Stuff like that has varied my experience, but it has been difficult to sustain that and make it into a lasting career,” said Welsh.

Judging by the number of young foreigners who start off in language instruction in South Korea but work in writing, video-making or photography on the side, there is clearly a strong interest in creative pursuits. Some young people seek to build their own platforms on YouTube and those with fluent language skills find opportunities in television, most notably the popular show Non Summit. But if the fair is an indication, the local market for such foreign talents appears to be small at best.

Is the South Korean market offering enough opportunities to foreigners from different backgrounds? Does it have the infrastructure to sustain non-Koreans’ careers, beyond the realm of having the right language skills?


Cover image: The most common white-collar career opportunities for non-Korean residents still involve having the right language skills. (Source: NgoHuuMoi via Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons)

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