Whenever I tell people here in Korea how I got my job at Sogang, most people have a hard time believing my story. I sent an unsolicited application with all my information, my diplomas and certificates, and my reason for wanting to work temporarily in Korea. I pretty much got accepted with the first email exchange, although the final paperwork took a few months to go through. I nevertheless still remember it as one of the easiest processes in my life.
This is in stark contrast to the grim reality faced by Koreans of my own generation. Korea currently faces severe youth unemployment (청년실업), and for many, finding a job is the only way to leave home, find a partner, get married and start a family of their own. Without a job, they may be gradually approaching their 30’s but when living at home and abiding my parents’ rules, their lives oftentimes resemble the lives of a teenager.
These days, whenever I hang out with my best friend, our conversations usually revolve around the stress he’s facing about finding a job, in Korean one word says it all (취업난). He’s 26 (27 by Korean measures) and currently on his third job seeking cycle, which means that he started applying for jobs last fall semester – a year ago. The large Korean conglomerates, not unlike universities, only hire twice a year. Spring and fall. For the spring recruits, the corporations arrange aptitude tests in the fall, followed by interviews in the winter. While my friend technically finished his engineering studies (with excellent grades from one of the most prestigious schools on the peninsula) last year around Christmas, he’s been putting off his graduation in order to maintain his student status while looking for jobs.
When we met last time, I asked about the upcoming aptitude exam he was preparing for at the cost of adequate sleep, proper meals, and a social life. (The fact that he manages to make time for me as often as he does is a true testament to our close-knit friendship.) He explained that applicants send their resume and cover letter (자기소개서) to the firm within a given deadline, and based on the submitted documents about 20% of the applicants are invited to take the written aptitude test (입사시험). These tests are carried out in Seoul and Busan and usually, a local high school is used as the test site, where several hundred applicants take the test together. This usually happens early on a Saturday or Sunday morning. The test is a combination of several fields: Korean language skills, logical reasoning, math skills, field-specific knowledge like engineering, knowledge about society, etc. There are several books written on how to pass the aptitude test at Hyundai, Samsung, etc. and most applicants study diligently at least a month in advance because the outcome of this test is the sole determinant of how you progress in the race.
He then explained that the results were published online after a few weeks, and based on the test score about 30% of the applicants were invited for an interview (면접). He’s already made it to several interviews, and apparently, this is also not something to joke about. While the few interviews I have been to in my life involved myself and a couple of interviewers this is a completely different game with a completely different set of rules. Here, those who make the cut based on their test scores are invited for interviews that may take hours. They face a whole panel of interviewers (면접관), and what’s worse, they don’t face them alone. Usually, they are being seated together with other applicants in a row facing the interview panel. Manners, behavior, attire, and makeup are all important factors. Then the panel starts spewing questions at the applicants in random order, and they then have to answer logically, politely, while proving why they will be an asset to this specific company. Often the interview is followed by a kind of case competition, where the applicants have to solve a particular problem and present their results in front of the interviewer panel.
After this ordeal, the successful applicants may face another round of interviews to be held at a later date, after which it will be decided who joins the firm. For those who are unsuccessful, another cycle awaits in six months, during which they can choose to apply for an internship (literally working as a fulltime+ employee for a fraction of the wages paid to regular workers) or they may pay for courses at private academies to add new skills to their resume.
In the midst of this long explanation, I couldn’t help but ask him the question: “Why are you putting up with all of this?” “Why don’t you just give up your dream of working for those big corporations and find a more comfortable job in a smaller company?” If he hadn’t known me so well, I’m sure he would have thought this a stupid question, but being my best friend and having spent time studying in the West, he could understand where I was coming from. “It’s all just a question of money. The big corporations pay up to three times more. If it weren’t for that wage gap, I’d probably find something else” he explained.
Upon finishing his studies, he spent the first half of this year working as an intern for a company an hour south of Seoul, and two hours from his home in the suburbs, sharing a studio apartment with a coworker. His work week was close to 60 hours with around 30 minutes spent on the bus to and from work each day. These days, he spends all of his time in a rented study room, where he prepares for the different aptitude tests and continues to build his skills within engineering by studying for several field-specific diplomas (자격증). For his birthday in the spring, I gave him a gift certificate for a concert or similar experience that we could go to together, and he then vowed that he would ‘cash’ it as soon as he found a fulltime job. I sincerely hope he’ll get to cash it soon.
This guy is obviously not the only one in this situation, but he’s the one closest to me, and he’s a symptom of a time where a whole generation of young Koreans face the same challenges. For him and for all the others in the same situation, I hope they’ll soon be able to realize their dreams and find true happiness.