To the best of my knowledge, most people in the Western world find jobs through networks, friends and influence, or else by trawling the depths of the internet and newspapers for job postings. With the latter approach, a concise, well-written cover letter or email, with a carefully constructed resume and references attached, is usually sent to the address advertised, followed perhaps by an enquiry email or phone call. If your writing is sensible and you have the appropriate skills and experiences, or your resume is just pure A4 gold, you may get a job interview.
Not so in Korea.
Towards the middle of the second university semester each year, the merry job season begins, creating a storm of study, preparation and application writing that once again reminds us that Korean society is wrapped in Confucian bands of examinations, procedures and an unspoken, unbroken ‘this is how we do things’ mentality.
The simple approach to job hunting I outlined above, is something the average Korean graduate could not imagine, and quite frankly, if they tried, their application probably wouldn’t even reach the ‘polite rejection’ stage. In Korea, the major companies, of which there are many, generally do mass intakes of graduates at the end of the year, and each company has a rigorous process involving exams, application screening, and rounds of interviews. The expression ‘jumping through hoops’ comes to mind, although in Korea’s case it’s more like jumping through flaming hoops on a bicycle with both hands tied together.
Look at a final year university student’s diary round September/October and you’ll see every weekend has ‘Samsung,’ ‘SK Oil,’ ‘Hyundai Construction’ or ‘Hanhwa Chemical’ written on it. These mega-corporations have their own exams, held yearly, which attract thousands of job-hopefuls. The exams are not easy, with sections covering number sequences, data analysis, mathematics, general knowledge, even knowledge of Chinese characters – the written characters, not figures from Chinese folk stories, although that would make for a fascinating exam. It’s basically a super IQ, skills and logic test all stapled into one.
The pedagogical quality of these tests is arguable: I would probably do well at the general knowledge section but screw up basically everything else, meaning that even if my skills and experiences were perfectly suited to an entry-level position in Samsung’s marketing/sales department, my total numerical illiteracy would undo me. And what does knowledge of Chinese characters – a study of increasingly little importance in Korea given the dominance of hangeul, Korea’s own writing system – have to do with being an accountant for SK Telecom? Apparently it’s all about memory, logic, IQ, and character.
The most time consuming stage though, is the online application process. Companies do not want you to approach them with emails or anything outside their strict system, and require applicants to complete enormous application questionnaires with brilliant questions like ‘tell us about a time where you had a difficulty with a co-worker or classmate, and how did you overcome it?’ Applicants must distinguish themselves by their quality of their response, or ‘stories.’ Many of my students refer to the process as ‘writing a novel’ every time they apply to a company, a phrase which expresses both the sheer volume of words they have to produce, and the often fictional, exaggerated quality of their narratives.
If any aspiring employee is lucky or smart enough to get past this thorny forest of tests and questions, they reach the interview stage, of which there are normally two or three. These too, are not informal chats or one-on-one interviews necessarily, but panel or group interviews with tough questions and an atmosphere that seems designed to make you sweat your shiny new suit. Literally shiny, as bright polyester fabrics are all the rage over here.
The high level of difficulty involved in all this explains why, when I ask many of my students ‘what did you do this week?’ they consider ‘Oh, I spent all week preparing to find my job’ a legitimate response. It’s a huge effort. In university, many students join study clubs, which involve groups of friends, classmates and anyone interested meeting at a library or cafe and preparing together by studying through IQ test books – selling like the Korean equivalent of hot cakes at the moment – or even forming ‘job interview practice clubs’ to smooth out those interview jitters through long hard practice. Admittedly, a lot of these clubs are an excuse to chat with friends and meet girls or boys though.
The whole process typifies much that is fascinating and frustrating about Korea. The examinations and applications seem so intense and so necessary for success, it reminds you entirely of the old Chinese examination system for choosing government appointments, a model Korea borrowed heavily from their mighty neighbours. But that was centuries ago! Similarly, the way the companies set these strict hiring and screening systems fits perfectly into the idea of Korea as a highly collectivised, conformist society. Some people have told me that the exams are often not about distinguishing the brilliant, so much as determining who is the most acceptable, desirable and indeed, malleable. ‘Some companies do not want a superman,’ one of my business students told me last week. ‘They want an ordinary person they can turn into a specialist.’ Ultimately, if you don’t know someone who can get you a job, the reality is that in Korea, there is one process to follow for everyone, and that is that. It’s a rigid inflexibility that is just a continuation of the education system as Koreans pass into adulthood.
And as for getting jobs in the highly prized government sector, well, those are even harder, and require years of study. But it could be worse I guess; in Japan, resumes must be written out by hand, and are judged on neatness. A grubby left-hander like me wouldn’t even stand a chance.
I now have a table and chairs, on which I am writing this now! I now have somewhere else to hang my clothes as I wait for my wardrobe.