English-language skills have become the determining factor for the success of office workers, with many companies considering English test scores an important criterion for promotion and favoring conversation skills over standardized tests like the TOEIC and TOEFL.
More and more firms use English for their intranet boards, meetings and reports. One 35-year-old deputy director at an IT company said, "The reality is that even divisions where English is not needed for work have to speak it. When there are restructuring plans, rumors spread that those who can't speak English are most likely to get laid off."
According to a survey by job portal Job Korea in January of 2,042 salaried workers about their regrets in the recession, 27.2 percent picked poor English skills, 25.1 percent chose lack of professional skills or licenses, and 15.3 percent answered lacking a degree from prestigious university.
Among students at English-language schools around the business district in Gangnam, Seoul, office workers have a significant presence. "The English component in reviews for promotion was changed from a TOEIC score to conversation skills. I score fairly well on the TOEIC thanks to the vocabulary I learned at university, but there is no better option to improve my English conversation skill. That's why I come here early in the morning," one said.
Lunchtime classes at a school are packed with office workers. A staffer said, "Unlike university students who tend to give up one or two months after taking classes, more than half of these employee students take classes for more than a year. That shows how desperate they are."
The English divide deepens when it comes to recruitment of fresh graduates. Average English proficiency is not enough in a generation where many have been educated abroad or gone through intensive courses from an early age, a human resources manager at Shinsegae Group said.
A 27-year-old jobseeker added, "It seems that Korea is going the same way as India, where totally different jobs are available for those who can speak English and those who can't."