Record Numbers Preparing for Public-Sector Jobs

  • By Patrick Park

    July 22, 2016 12:48

    Record numbers of young Koreans are preparing to sit the exam for safe civil-service jobs, and almost twice as many say they hope to work in the public sector as in private enterprise.

    According to Statistics Korea on Thursday, 39.3 percent or 256,000 of the country's 6.52 million jobseekers between 15 to 29 are preparing to take civil service exams. That is a record and up 35,000 from only a year ago. Only around 140,000 are preparing to apply for jobs in private businesses.

    There are 4,120 entry-level positions in central government this year, but 222,650 candidates flocked to test centers nationwide. The test for 11,359 entry-level jobs with provincial governments drew 212,983 applicants.

    The surge is motivated by stark calculation. The Chosun Ilbo asked the Korea Development Institute to tally the lifetime earnings of university graduates who entered the job market between 2008 and 2014, and found that people who pass either entry-level or mid-level public service exams and work for the government until retirement stand to make more money than people who land jobs in a major conglomerate.

    Their earnings over 30 years could come to an estimated W1.46 billion including pension (US$1=W1,137). That is less than the potential W1.6 billion 30-year income in a private business including pension, but considerably more than the W1.27 billion they could make working in private employment for just 25 years.

    Given that the average retirement age in most private companies is around 55, public servants end up making more than their counterparts in the private sector simply by clinging to their chairs for longer.

    The problem is that most applicants do not get a civil-service job. The competition rate has soared to several hundred to one for some positions, and fewer than one in 10 applicants pass the test.

    According to the KDI, spending years preparing for the civil service but ending up in the private sector could cost an applicant W400 million in lifetime salary.

    Oh Ho-young at the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training said, "People who fail to land a job in the civil service get a late start in their careers in the private sector and often lack the skill sets companies need because they've spent all their time studying for the exam. So they end up with lower-paid jobs and working for a shorter period than those who get an early start."

    But for many the dream of safe lifelong employment trumps these concerns. That is particularly evident among students at regional universities or less competitive colleges in Seoul, whose chances with private employers are lower than those of graduates from top universities.

    Kim Tae-il at Korea University said, "This phenomenon is the result of a lack of quality jobs offered by private businesses."

    Experts also worry that this could create a lot of jobsworths who are in it for the job security rather than to serve the public.

    In March job search portal Saramin surveyed 1,174 people preparing to take the civil service exam and found that 77 percent were drawn by the job security. Only 10.9 percent said they wanted to serve the public.

    In advanced countries public service jobs are rarely top of a graduate's agenda. "The skyrocketing popularity of entry-level public service jobs among graduates is a phenomenon that is unique to Korea," says Prof. Moon Myung-jae at Yonsei University.

    "In the U.S. or Europe, applicants are selected according to their aptitude for specific vacancies, with a long series of exams and interviews, but Korea relies only on standardized tests."

    Chang Hyun-joo at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies said, "In the U.S. or Europe, government workers are considered public servants who are there on the sufferance of taxpayers, and there's not the same expectation of lifetime employment as there is in Korea. People expect to switch jobs several times over a career, so not many plumb for the civil service just because it provides job security."

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