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[Editorial] Koreans overeducated

Few would dispute that high school education is enough for the lowest two administrative positions on the one-to-nine scale. Nor would anyone deny that it does not take much formal education to sweep streets. But this common sense does not prevail in Korea, as shown by examples below.

Last year, the Seoul metropolitan government selected 415 recruits to fill the vacant positions of grades eight and nine. But only one high school graduate was among them. On the other hand, they included nine who had been on graduate courses or had higher education.

The case is an example of what is called an “inflationary schooling” in Korea. It also is testimony to the overwhelming difficulty that those without a college diploma encounter in their pursuit of employment.

Another case involves a former candidate for a doctorate in physics, who made headlines when he applied for a position of street sweeper in Seoul in 2009. It is not easy to put the case aside simply as a personal problem. Rather, it is a rare symptom of the terribly mismatched relationship between education and labor ― a problem for whose solution all members of society are required to pool their wisdom.

In Korea, eight out of 10 high school graduates go on to colleges or universities. The rate is abnormally high, given the average among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is 56 percent.

The eligibility of all of them for higher education is a moot question, though some may claim that the more schooled Koreans are, the better it will be for the nation. But it undeniably results in waste if one gets more education than is needed for their job. According to one estimate, Korea would save almost 1 trillion won each year if the ratio of college admissions to high school graduates were lowered to the OECD average.

But investment in four-year education at a private university is a profitable business for individuals. According to one estimate, a person landing a job immediately after graduation will have to wait for five years until the total amount of his earnings and opportunity cost surpasses what he would be earning if he were a high school graduate.

According to a report from the Ministry of Employment and Labor, the 2009 average entry-level pay for a university graduate was at 24.36 million won, about 50 percent more than that of a high school graduate. The gap widens to about 100 percent for workers aged 50 to 54. No wonder as many as 71.1 percent of vocational high school students obtained admission to junior colleges or universities last year, instead of seeking jobs they had been trained for.

It is necessary to begin the time-consuming mission of cutting the wage gap if Korea is to curb inflationary schooling. But a task that needs to be immediately launched will be to provide high school graduates with greater employment opportunities.

A campaign launched by commercial and other banks to hire high school graduates as tellers is encouraging in this regard. The Korea Federation of Banks says its member banks will hire 2,722 high school graduates during the next three years, including 787 in the second half of this year ― the first such large-scale hiring in the banking sector since the 1997-98 Asian financial meltdown.

Banks have decided to put high school graduates on their payrolls at the initiative of the administration. The state-owned Korea Development Bank took its cue from the administration when it decided to fill as many as one-third of its vacant positions with high school graduates.

Such an initiative, which is often accompanied by undue pressure, is usually frowned upon as an unwarranted act of intervention in the market. Not this time. A simple comparison shows why: High school graduates account for 34 percent of people working as tellers at banks or doing similar jobs at insurance companies and other financial institutions in Korea, compared with 83 percent in the United States. The administration is urged to encourage other state-owned corporations and private companies to follow suit.
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