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Encouraging problem-solving

Why do Koreans lack problem-solving skills? The cause is structural.
July 20,2017
Technologies that once only appeared in sci-fi movies are fundamentally changing how we live and work. Some claim that six out of 10 jobs today will be automated within 30 years. As our reality is changing by the day, it is more important to pay attention to new jobs and prepare for changes rather than worrying about the jobs that will disappear in the future.

Changes in jobs over time allow us to predict the employment of the future. Studies on job patterns between 1960 and 2009 show that simple, repetitive jobs have gradually decreased by 20 percent, while jobs that require abstract and analytical skills and personal relationships have increased by 30 percent. In surveys of companies in different countries, key skills in the workplace of the future include intelligence, critical thinking, creativity, cooperation, communication, persuasion and compromise. These are the skills needed to complete tasks of the future, and jobs will change to demand these skills.

The question is whether Korean adults are competitive in this changing world. It is doubtful. Data from the OECD shows that Korean adults rank 16th in reading, 14th in writing, 11th in math and 17th in IT use among 33 countries. However, in problem-solving skill, Koreans are ranked 29th, one of the lowest. Adults in highly-skilled and professional areas demonstrate a major gap against those in similar fields in other countries.

Why do Koreans lack problem-solving skills? The cause is structural. First, people lack individual efforts to acquire and regularly update specialized knowledge. Only 9.7 percent of Korean workers experience “learning by doing,” less than half the OECD average, and two out of three workers say they don’t feel the need to learn new things at work.

A top-down corporate culture and work system also contributes to the problem. Studies show that workers use problem-solving skills more when communication and cooperation are active in workplaces. In Korean corporate culture, where top-down management and hierarchy are the priority, the free opinions and creative ideas of individuals are ignored.

A disparate labor structure that categorizes workers into “regular” and “irregular” is also an obstacle. Companies do not invest in irregular workers. They don’t get education, training or guaranteed employment. Irregular workers have little motivation to display their full potential. There is a considerable gap between regular and irregular workers.

To build problem-solving skills and utilize them at work, various efforts for improvement are needed. The education for our future generations should be revised to help them build problem-solving skills. Rather than solving given problems, children should be encouraged to participate in project-based learning to actively explore and investigate problems and seek multidimensional solutions.

And to prepare for a changing labor market, our vocational education and training system needs to be revamped to fit goals of lifelong learning, and training should include not only specialized skills and knowledge but also interpersonal skills like communication, cooperation and negotiation.

The government can play a role in companies’ efforts to improve corporate culture and how people work. They can reorganize their top-down system into a more horizontal structure and develop two-way communication channels. The government can provide management consulting and work analysis to small and midsize companies and ensure problem-solving skills are sufficiently used in the field. Companies need to clarify that workers are autonomous and accountable for their work so that individual opinions and creativity are reflected and workers can conduct business in their own ways.

Finally, stable employment is a requirement that enables companies to invest in the improvement of workers’ skill and allows workers to maximize their skills. Therefore, rather than labor market flexibility like easy dismissal and hiring, which undermines stable employment, a more stable employment relationship that allows for wage and work hours to be modified depending on the market conditions should be pursued. Only then will we be able to develop problem-solving skills.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 13, Page 33

*The author is a senior fellow at the Korea Development Institute.

Kim Yong-seong