Lee Jong-suk faced stiff opposition from parents and friends when he decided to go to a vocational high school six years ago.
They wanted him to go to a general high school to be qualified for university admission and a decent job as most Korean teenagers desire.
“But the moment I saw the picture of the sea and ships in a dock, I thought this is where I belong,” said Lee, 21, who now works for Doriko Ltd, a ship management firm in Seoul.
Seniors of Incheon Electronic Meister High School pose for a group photo after their graduation ceremony on Feb. 7. (Yonhap News)
While his peers were stuck at their desks, Lee had a wide range of training that provided both job skills and knowledge to navigate a ship during his three years at Busan Maritime High School.
“I still believe I made the right decision.”
Lee is one of a growing number of young Koreans who choose vocational education over academic education to secure a job straight after high school.
In 2009, according to government data, nearly 73 percent of vocational high school graduates went on to college, but the tally dropped to 55 percent in 2012 as 33 percent found a job instead.
Getting into an elite college and then working for a major corporation has long been a goal for young Koreans.
Observers say the situation, however, seems to be slowly changing as disproportional university enrollment has aggravated both the education burden and youth unemployment in an increasingly tight job market.
According to 2011 government data, only 50 percent of college graduates were employed full time. That also creates other problems, such as an overqualified labor market, shortages of skilled labor and a lack of qualified employees for small and medium-sized businesses.
To tackle such problems, the government has been expanding support for vocational high schools that tailor to students in specialized industrial skills.
The Lee Myung-bak administration, in particular, launched a new secondary vocational school program, called Meister schools in 2008, designed to prepare youths to work in high-skilled manufacturing jobs and other fields.
Under the pilot scheme, 21 Meister schools were launched in 2010, and presently there are 35 Meister high schools around the country, all fully funded by the government and major business firms.
While the government is offering various incentives, including full scholarships and job advantages, the number of Meister schools is expected to surpass 50 this year, according to Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
Although the Meister schools are still new and account for less than 2 percent of all high schools in the country, the early figures are promising ― 93 percent of the first graduates from those 21 new Meister schools are already employed.
“We focus on supporting students in their effort to gain employment after graduation by providing really hands-on experience and training that reflects the demands of industry,” said Baek Gyung-jin, 44, a teacher from Sudo Electric Technical High School, which posted a record 100 percent employment rate for graduates.
Baek attributed the school’s outstanding feat to its practical classes and highly experienced faculty.
At Sudo Electric Technical High school, he added, students choose a specialty from electrical energy to communication technology and receive training nearly 10 hours a week.
“We jointly develop curriculum and textbooks with well-experienced industry experts and also invite them over to teach our students regularly,” Baek said.
He added that teachers also participated in industry training regularly to help students have an up-to-date, truly hands-on experience.
“It may be too early to call it a success, but I think Meister is one of the best ideas this government introduced.”
Observers, however, note that skipping college to go straight to work is still a hard choice for young high school graduates in the country.
“It’s true that still many firms think high school graduates are less skilled than college graduates,” said Kim Yun-sik, 42, a teacher from Gwangju Automatic Technical High School.
Kim pointed out that the wage gap between college graduates and workers without higher education degrees is one of the prevailing obstacles.
According to 2011 government data, employees who found a job after high school worked an average 45 hours per week, while those with college degrees worked 37 hours. But the workers with secondary education qualification earned only on average 1.4 million won ($1,300) a month, about 420,000 won less than college graduates.
“But things are changing slowly, and we receive an increasing number of applicants every year who understand a college degree no longer guarantees a job,” Baek said.
Lee Jong-suk stressed that skipping college to go straight to work does not mean the end of education.
“I want to go to college when I’m ready,” said Lee, who said his long-term goal is to teach young technicians.
“But I decided to work first and study later, I’m happy where I am, and I want to work hard to prove that high school graduates can still be successful at work,” he added.
By Oh Kyu-wook (firstname.lastname@example.org)