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More teens choose paychecks over textbooks

Mar 24,2018
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For Lee Min-woo, skipping college was a smart decision. After graduating from a vocational high school, where he studied digital content, Lee was immediately hired by Bespin Global, a Korean cloud management and consulting company.

After six months of on-the-job training, Lee was promoted to junior engineer and received a 30 percent raise in his salary.

The high school graduate is now taking home a steady paycheck four years earlier than his friends who went off to college.

Korea is seeing an increase in students like Lee, who opt to enter the workforce directly rather than enroll in college.

Statistics Korea reported Wednesday that enrollment rates across all types of colleges, including traditional four-year-colleges and vocational universities, dropped last year.

According to the organization’s 2017 social indicator report, the percent of high school graduates enrolling in college dropped to 68.9 percent, a 0.9 percent drop from 2016.

The college enrollment rate soared from 73.4 percent to 77.8 percent between 2005 and 2009. But over the next eight years, the percentage of Korean high school graduates who went on to college fell by nine percent.

Only 27.2 percent of high school graduates went on to college in 1980. As more families pushed their children to go on to higher education, Korea’s university system grew rapidly.

The percent of high school students who were admitted to at least one college skyrocketed from 33.2 percent in 1990 to 83.8 percent in 2008.

Some experts say that the recent downward trend is due to changing attitudes toward higher education.

“[The decrease] might be the result of growing awareness that a college degree is not going to guarantee a job or a stable life,” said sociology professor Kim Seok-ho of Seoul National University.

The correlation between landing a job and a college degree is thinning.

As Korea’s economic growth slowed in recent years, big companies cut back on white-collar hiring. The percentage of college graduates who land white-collar jobs at large corporations has stubbornly remained between 67 and 68 percent over the past eight years.

Vocational high school graduates, on the other hand, have seen their job opportunities increase in recent years. Last year, 50.6 percent of graduates found a job straight out of high school.

It was the first time in 17 years that the success rate surpassed 50 percent. In 2009, only 16.7 percent of vocational graduates found a job immediately after graduating, but the rate has soared since then.

“With the start of the information age in 2010, there has been an increase in blue-collar jobs in the service sector for vocational high school graduates,” said Choi Kyung-soo, director and vice president of Human Resource Development Policy at the Korea Development Institute. “Still, the number of managerial, banking and skilled labor positions for these graduates remains the same.”

Some experts, like Seoul National University’s Kim, think that preparing the workforce for blue collar jobs is what Korea needs.

“Because of such high college enrollment rates,” said Kim, “there was a mismatch in labor supply, so the recent downturn in the rate is a good thing for the proportional allotment of labor.”

The report by Statistics Korea also showed a slight increase in Koreans’ satisfaction with their income. Last year, they reported a 1.9 percent increase in satisfaction with their income compared to the year before. Koreans content with their earnings were 13.3 percent of the population.

BY PARK JIN-SUK, SHIM SAE-ROM [song.hankyul@joongang.co.kr]