Moon Jae-in Image Credit: AP

Most mornings, Lee Seung-hoon takes the subway to Noryangjin, a neighbourhood filled with private academies that prepare students for the civil-servant exam. His school is located in a seven-storey building called the Mega Study Tower. It’s a strategic choice. Even when the economy is faring poorly, the government still hires. Indeed, South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, has pledged to create thousands more public service jobs for university grads. Also, it’s hard to get fired from such jobs. Little wonder public sector positions are known as the “iron rice bowl.” Lee Seung-hoon, 23, has also been studying engineering, but chose to take some time off to study for the civil servant exam. “It’s not that I think that being a public servant is such a good job, it’s just secure,” he says. “Some of my friends want to earn a lot of money, so they’ll try to work for a big conglomerate, but I prefer stability.” Job security is an understandable objective, particularly right now, with the youth unemployment rate hovering around 10 per cent, well above the national average. Complicating matters are announcements from conglomerates like Samsung and LG, which say they won’t increase hiring this year. Lee Seung-hoon admits that he’s not particularly passionate about engineering or civil service. “Parents want their kids to get a good job, so you have to go to university. It doesn’t even matter what you study. You just get into whatever major you can,” he explains. “Passion in life doesn’t matter. And so we lose interest in what we’re studying along the way.”

Jasper Kim, a teacher at Ewha Womens University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul, says that for most South Korean families, the right kind of job is narrowly defined. “Here the right job is a government job, or working for one of these large conglomerates,” he explains. “And so parents put all their resources, economic resources, emotional resources, into their kids to obtain this goal.” Nearby Japan and Taiwan have dealt with high youth unemployment rates, too. But Kim argues that it’s a bit different here. Korean parents try to ensure that their kids get the best jobs, he says, by not only putting them through university - an estimated 70 per cent of people in their 20s and 30s have a university degree, but also spending lots of money on private education. As a result, there’s an academy for almost every profession here.

Kim says it’s not statistically possible for all these well-educated people to land desired positions. All this training and education, in other words, is part of the problem. “Korea is suffering from basically too much education,” he says. “This is a group of young kids who have too many degrees, spent too much time in schools.”

They also have high expectations that, compared to what the job market is actually able to offer right now, are “irrationally exuberant,” says Kim. There are jobs to be had - in the so-called SMEs (small or medium-sized enterprises), he says. But many college grads refuse to go that route: They consider themselves overqualified, and want better working conditions and more money. At a youth job fair in Goyang, a satellite city just outside of Seoul, about 50 SMEs are looking to hire on the spot. Some job seekers came here dressed in a suit and tie. Choi Kang-min, 27, is one of them. He graduated earlier this year with a degree in automotive engineering and says he’d much rather work for a big company because he’s only heard bad things about small firms. “I have a friend who works at a small company and he’s always working overtime,” Choi says. “That sounds really bad to me.”

Heo Gun, whose company makes cases for electric wiring, is recruiting at the job fair. He says SMEs like his have gained an unfair reputation. “Job seekers here have this preconception that all SMEs exploit their employees,” he says. “Yes, some do. But not all. I wish they would be more open to working for firms like ours.” Overworking their employees isn’t the only thing SMEs are known for. They also pay a lot less than the big-name firms, which is why Han Yoo-jung, 23, says she’s hesitant to work for one. “My professor says that if you work for a conglomerate, you’ll earn in one year what it would take 10 years to make at a small company.” Still, now that big-name firms are cutting back on hiring, some young Koreans are starting to reconsider their options. As hesitant as she is, Han Yoo-jung admits at this point that she’ll take what she can get.

— Worldcrunch, in partnership with KBR Calling/New York Times News Service

Jason Strother is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seoul.