Life After the Suneung
From elementary school on, children in South Korea are under a tremendous amount of pressure to perform academically. Attending school during the day, most then go to one of the country’s approximately 100,000 hagwon classes for many hours after school to get extra education, often in English. Most families spend 12% or more of their income on these extra classes in hopes that their child will be one of the lucky ones to go to a top three university, then get hired by a top ten company.
The process hinges on the outcome of the Suneung, the day in South Korea when high school graduates take college/university entrance exams. Academic and occupational success are obsessions in the Korean culture, and lack of achievement is cause for great shame (and sometimes suicide), so much so that over 40% of college graduates would rather be unemployed than underemployed or work for a small to medium size company instead of one of the icon corporations.
Republic of Korea’s Education Minister has started a publicity campaign encouraging high school graduates to “work first, study later” in an effort to deal with rising unemployment of college/university graduates. Although mega-companies like Samsung and LG hire about 260,000 of the college/university graduates every year, leaving over 60,000 annually who don’t get hired and creates a sizable unemployment statistic, twice the number of older Korean age groups.
It is estimated that there are over 5,000,000 unemployed college/university graduates in South Korea. Some of the bigger companies are moving jobs to countries where labor is cheaper to improve their bottom line, which means less jobs for college/university graduates in Korea.
Although exact salary data is hard to come by, many sources conclude that about 25% of students who attend the lesser rated universities make less or the same wages after graduation as those who didn’t go to college/university. It seems to be more than just graduating college/university, the actual university attended determines future wages. The other big factor is the difference between wages paid by large companies when compared to medium and small companies.
Large companies can pay more because government policies favour large employers over smaller companies. The tide is changing however in an effort to get graduates to take jobs with smaller companies, and students to skip college/university and go to work directly after high school. Banks controlled by the government has started hiring high school graduates to pave the way and set the example for industry to follow. Still, conglomerates pay over 50% more than small to medium size companies, so graduates strive for position.
Wages still vary greatly between occupations. For example, unskilled labor such as hospitality or food service workers earn about the equivalent of $2,450 New Zealand dollars; teachers average $2,815; while information technology jobs average over $6,000 a month. The difference in pay creates strenuous competition among graduates, many going back to school to learn additional languages and get other credentials so they can have more to offer at the next interview.
Working hours between occupations also influences college/university attendance and occupational choice. Construction fields work six days a week, at least 10 hours a day. Most professional jobs are five days a week, about 9 hours a day.
Given the choice on Suneung day, South Korean students opt to give it their all so they can be selected for the best jobs, the best salaries packages, and the best life.
Written by Kitty Bickford for Wooree English