When many young South Koreans are asked why they need to study English, they’ll respond that they need it to find a good job. They won’t mention specifically how it could be useful to their potential careers, such as for business emails, international sales calls or for online research.
What they are referring to is the need to study English to get a good Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) score–the most widely accepted measure of English ability in South Korea. Having worked in the recruitment section of a Korean company I can say with certainty that TOEIC scores are a critical metric used in hiring decisions.
Most in recruitment will tell you that a TOEIC score above 800 is needed for employment with one of the first or second tier Korean companies. Even those employed by other companies will still have a TOEIC score and accompanying certificate on their job application.
However, once in the workforce, many Koreans will never use their English ability to its full potential. Unless they are hired for a specific “global” role, many staff will not get the opportunity to use English to benefit their work other than for some online research.
It can be argued that current standard and compulsory English education from elementary level education through university is adequate for the reading comprehension skills needed for the vast majority of jobs in Korea. Yet many young Koreans and their families continue to invest tens of thousands of dollars for additional English education for a skill that will never be fully utilized.
A 2013 report on Korea by McKinsey & Company found that a typical middle class family shells out up to $100,000 per child on education fees, even before the costs of extra English education at one of the many English academies prevalent in Korea.
Despite this staggering investment, Korea has a relatively high rate of unemployment among those aged under 30. A major reason for this is that that although around 70% of Koreans enroll in tertiary education, major corporations only provide up about 10% of jobs available, making competition incredibly fierce for these positions.
The most damning fact from the McKinsey report was the revelation that high school graduates will earn more over their work life compared with college graduates because of the late entry of the latter group into the workforce. A 2012 survey conducted by the Korea Employment Information Service, found that the average age of new office workers in Korea was a staggering 33.2 years old for men (up from 27.3 in 2008) and 28.6 for females.Many young Koreans who apply but fail for such jobs are actively choosing unemployment to pursue postgraduate study options and prepare for English tests to strengthen their applications the following year. Such youngsters are referred to as “chuiupjunbiseng” or “students preparing for work”. It is not uncommon for Koreans to apply for three or four job application seasons in a row to the same group of large companies, each time with newer and presumably better TOEIC scores.
While many are spending thousands of dollars on essentially “buying” an entrance requirement to a Korean conglomerate, some new hires will be assigned to overseas jobs that require English. Those workers will often join in-house English training programs or attend classes sponsored by their employers in their own time, however. If new recruits have the opportunity to improve their language skills at the workplace, why are they placing such high expectations for TOEIC scores on the entire new graduate workforce?
Finding a solution to the financial and societal pressures associated with English test scores in South Korea isn’t easy. Should companies abolish English test requirements completely from the application process, other than for “globally” defined jobs?
That would be a bold step, but this much is certain: allowing recruits to enter the workforce at an earlier age and reducing the amount of money invested in their education would give young Koreans and their parents a much more balanced return-on-investment for their education outlays. A byproduct of such a policy would surely be a reduction of youth stress and depression.
Without doubt, excellent English skills are vital for a portion of the Korean workforce and will benefit any young worker entering the workforce. But to expect all prospective rookie workers to go beyond English training provided during school and essentially force them to seek private education and certification seems to be costing young Koreans and their families much more than they anticipated.