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[Feature] Graduating into COVID-19 pandemic

Young job seekers face delays in life, career; experts say job market condition likely to worsen next year

Job seekers line up at an employment welfare center in Seoul’s Jung-gu to enter a seminar on unemployment benefits. Young Koreans have been facing difficulties in gaining employment, as the number of job openings has sharply fallen as businesses struggle amid the novel coronavirus outbreak. (Yonhap)
Job seekers line up at an employment welfare center in Seoul’s Jung-gu to enter a seminar on unemployment benefits. Young Koreans have been facing difficulties in gaining employment, as the number of job openings has sharply fallen as businesses struggle amid the novel coronavirus outbreak. (Yonhap)
Landing a job has never been an easy task for Koreans freshly out of college, but the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic has taken it to a whole new level.

In the unprecedented unemployment crisis, many young Koreans are forced to endure delays in their lives and careers, as job offers are rescinded, new openings vanish and start dates at hard-won jobs are being pushed back.

For a job seeker surnamed Song, a final year student at Seoul National University, that meant a major setback to his yearslong preparations for a career in finance.

“Since completing the mandatory military service (in 2018), I have been attaining work-related certificates and doing internships to land a job in the financial sector,” said the 27-year-old.

His plan was to secure a job before his scheduled graduation in August, but now, he says, “Looks like that’s not going to happen.”

Graduating into unemployment in a worst-ever job market is a fear shared by many seniors at virtually all Korean universities. But experts say a lot of college seniors and fresh graduates will face that reality.

Even worse, next year is unlikely to be any better, as this year’s graduates and next year’s grads have to compete for whatever chances are out there to find employment.

Korea’s unemployment rate skyrocketed to the highest level in years in May. The employment rate for those in their 20s fell 2.4 percentage points from a year earlier to 55.7 percent, the lowest level ever recorded, since data started being compiled in 1982.

In hard-hit sectors like airlines, employers are struggling to retain those already on the payroll. Some have started sending employees on unpaid leave or offering voluntary retirement.

And even for those not directly impacted, market uncertainties posed by the global pandemic mean there is no reason to hurry new hiring.

Celltrion, a leading biopharmaceutical company here, said it has no plan to recruit new workers this year, despite its revenue jumping 68 percent on-year and operating profit up 55 percent in the first quarter this year.

“We were planning to hire some new workers for our drug business sector this year, but now that plan has been shelved,” said Celltrion spokesperson Park Kyung-chul.

“It’s hard to carry out face-to-face meetings with the virus spread, so at this point, we have no plan on hiring anyone this year.”

SNU student Song said even for those who are hiring and sticking with their pre-COVID-19 business plans, the process has dragged on, leaving applicants to deal with the stress of uncertainties. 

“Even for the two positions that I applied for (so far this year), interview schedules have been constantly pushed back. I don’t know if they will ever be able to complete the recruitment process,” he said. 

As private sector jobs diminish, the government has pushed public entities to hire more college grads. The competition to land those jobs is, unsurprisingly, white hot.

A 24-year-old fourth-year business administration student surnamed Wang at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies is among those rushing to submit resumes to grab precious chances for permanent jobs. Public enterprises are generally preferred by job seekers in Korea for the benefits and job security. 

“A lot of hiring plans were postponed since the coronavirus outbreak, and now they are slowly emerging back on job portals,” Wang said. “I’m worried of too many applicants rushing for jobs in the public sector and diminishing my chances.”

Wang’s worries are not unwarranted, given the competition he faces.

Korea Western Power, the first to launch its regular recruitment drive among public companies this year, received 8,268 applicants for 74 positions. Korea Railroad Corp., which is looking to hire 850 new workers in the first half, received 42,539 applications.

While the job market situation looks very competitive and worrisome, experts say the intensity is only expected to rise throughout the year and will continue next year as well.

“Even though public companies are resuming recruitments now, they still have limits to how many they can hire, and that means there really aren’t that many opportunities for young job seekers,” said Kim So-young, an economics professor at Seoul National University.

“If the economy continues to struggle, the number of job openings, especially in the private sector, will remain low. And at the same time, people will still graduate and that means we are going to see more job seekers out in the market.”

To help the next generation of workers to start their career on the right footing, Kim says the Korean labor market should make structural reforms more flexible, with companies given greater liberty to lay off workers when needed and hire new ones without being forced to launch big open recruitment processes.

“A lot of companies sent their workers on unpaid leave because trying to fire them can create uncomfortable, legally troubling situations,” he added.

“When firing becomes easier, so does recruiting. While this may sound unpleasant for many at this moment, having a flexible labor market can create lasting benefits for both job seekers and those who are employed.”

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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