The Korea Herald


[Eye on English] TOEIC adds to stress for young job seekers

Experts say English shouldn’t be mandatory for jobs that don’t require English abilities

By Claire Lee

Published : March 26, 2014 - 20:53

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Han Yoon-chan is a recent university graduate and job seeker who majored in political science. One of his graduation requirements, which, in his own words, “has nothing to do with his major,” was to get a minimum TOEIC score of 650. The highest possible score is 990.

“What if you don’t get that score? You try and try and try again until you get it,” he told The Korea Herald. “It doesn’t matter if your major is English literature or not. I have a friend who is still in school because he hasn’t gotten that TOEIC score. And he is majoring in engineering.”

Han has been a job seeker for several months, writing cover letters and filling out application forms. All of the jobs he is interested in applying for, including those at large corporations, require him to submit his TOEIC score, Han says. He has been taking the test to get a higher score, at least 900, which he thinks is “safe” for applying for jobs.

“I’m sure you can’t find any company that doesn’t ask for your TOEIC score,” he said. “I am not particularly interested in jobs that require superb English abilities. Honestly, I don’t even think I am qualified for those. The point is, you need a solid TOEIC score to get a job in this country … (It) doesn’t matter if you want to work as a marketer or a designer.”
Young job seekers take an English language course at a private institute in Seoul. (The Korea Herald) Young job seekers take an English language course at a private institute in Seoul. (The Korea Herald)

Mandatory requirement

Han isn’t the only one struggling with TOEIC. As he experienced, most major companies now require job applicants to submit TOEIC and TOEIC speaking scores. Thousands of young job seekers take private lessons and pull all-nighters to get the TOEIC score they need to secure a spot in the notoriously competitive local job market.

According to the YBM TOEIC Commission, local conglomerates such as Samsung, LG, CJ, SK and Doosan require job applicants to submit their TOEIC speaking scores. Those who would like to apply to Hyundai Group must have a minimum TOEIC score of 720, while those who wish to work at Renault Samsung Motors must aim for 750.

“Honestly, I think you need to have a TOEIC score of 950 to be safe,” said one young professional in Seoul who found a job last year. She asked to remain anonymous.

“With a TOEIC score below 900, I think you really need something that’s very exceptional under your belt ― it could be your GPA or extracurricular activities ― to have an edge in the job market right now.”

‘English divide’

Meanwhile, one’s TOEIC score does not only reflect one’s linguistic abilities, but may also signify one’s socioeconomic and regional background.

According to a study organized by the YBM TOEIC Commission on people who took the TOEIC from 2011 to 2012, among 2,086,000 test takers, 907,000 were young people seeking employment. Their average score was 638. Those who resided in Seoul had the highest average score, 682, while South Jeolla Province residents scored lowest.

Within Seoul, job seekers in Seocho-gu and Gangnam-gu, two of the wealthiest districts in southern Seoul, scored the highest. Those in Geumcheon-gu, a district in southwestern Seoul, scored the lowest. The average score of those who lived in Seocho-gu, 719 points, was 87 points higher than that of people living in Geumcheon-gu at 632 points.

These numbers again confirm what observers call the “English divide” between young people with wealthy parents and those from lower-income families.

“Realistically speaking, the polarization of English learning exists not only among the young people in Korea, but also among elementary school students,” said Lee Byung-min, professor of English education and director of the Foreign Language Education Center at Seoul National University.

“People used to think one’s English language abilities primarily had to do with one’s intellectual abilities. But now, the majority of people think of it as a result of educational and financial investments, paid for by their parents.

“So students who have the privilege of different options and opportunities to learn English, aside from what they get from public education, are meant to be more fluent in the language than those who are not,” he continued. “Now this raises the question of equal opportunities. In an ideal society, one’s abilities and opportunities are not affected by things one cannot control.”

Relevance questioned

Kim Eun-mi works as a teacher at private institutions for teenagers, giving lessons in science and math. She recently took the TOEIC writing and speaking tests, “in case” she may need the scores in the future.

“It’s just something that everyone does,” she said. “If you want another job, you will need your TOEIC score. Is English my career specialty? No. Do I think it is an unnecessary waste of time and energy? Yes, kind of. But a TOEIC score is your access pass for every job opening there is. You can’t really fight the system.”

Scholar Kim Seong-kon, whose specialty is English literature, said he thinks not all employers should ask the applicants to submit TOEIC scores, especially if the job does not specifically require English language abilities.

“I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone in the country to speak English,” Kim told The Korea Herald. “For example, those who majored in math or Korean literature should be allowed to focus on their specialties. They should be given chances in their own field even if their English is relatively limited. But I think regardless of what your career or academic field is, if you speak English, it gives you an edge. It allows you to talk about your own culture and research (to a foreign audience).”

But professor Kim Young-min from Dongguk University said that one’s foreign-language skills also reflects one’s worldview and personality.

“One’s Korean language as well as foreign language skills are often a very good indicator of one’s relationship with others, worldviews, and the way one interacts and understands others,” he told The Korea Herald. “So even if certain jobs do not require English language skills every day, I think it is helpful for the employers to learn about the applicants better if they get to know about their language abilities” as well as their specialties.

Fading credibility

An employee of a major conglomerate told The Korea Herald that he got a TOEIC score of 920 before applying for his current job, which does not require English language skills

“I don’t consider myself someone who is fluent in English,” he said, asking to remain anonymous.

“I don’t think a TOEIC score is a good indicator of one’s actual English abilities. The TOEIC is just a test. You can get the score you want, if you really invest your time in it, even if it’s just a short period. It’s difficult, but it’s possible.

“But I don’t think you expect someone to speak English like a native speaker just because their latest TOEIC score was 970. No one thinks like that anymore. ”

One of the reasons why TOEIC is failing as a credible indicator of one’s English abilities has to do with the attitude of young Koreans who take the test, says an English teacher who works at a private institute that offers TOEIC classes in southern Seoul. He also wanted to remain anonymous.

“Most young job seekers in their 20s and 30s started learning English in third grade. They spent about 10 years learning the language while attending middle and high school,” he told The Korea Herald.

“But they usually go back to square one when they are looking for jobs and are struggling with TOEIC, which deals with elementary- and intermediate-level English. And many think they are done with English for good once they get the TOEIC score they want, while there is a greater need for English language abilities in today’s globalized society.

“TOEIC deals with everyday, practical English, so it does help you improve your actual English skills ― if you do it the proper way,” he continued. “But if you are just doing it for the sake of getting a job, while not really interested in learning the language itself, obviously it’s not going to get you anything (other than the score).”

By Claire Lee (