As in many economies where eager college students fall prey to corporate exploitation, internships in Korea have gained a notoriety that rivals the advantages they potentially offer.
For non-Koreans hoping for an internship experience, however, the trouble begins before they even start.
|Foreign students attend a class at a Korean graduate school. (Korea University Graduate School of International Studies)|
Sarah, a 25-year old New Zealander who requested her surname be withheld, lived in Korea for two years teaching English to children. Her degree from back home came in physics, and if she had known how and where to apply for a position that was more relevant to her background, she would have.
“There are science jobs available (for foreigners), but they seem mostly to be for engineering. I wasn’t sure exactly where to look for positions involving physics. Also, a lot of the job postings are in Korean, which can be difficult to navigate,” she said.
Although Sarah has no complaints about teaching -- the kids were delightful and her life peaceful -- she is now ready to move on from Korea and seek a master’s degree in physics research in the U.S.
American-educated Malaysian Tim Tye, 25, is considering attending a language program here in Korea to maximize his potential in the local job market. Tim has a bachelor’s degree in film and two years’ experience working for a news station in Hong Kong. He wonders if a Korean language course at a local university would help him build connections necessary to penetrate into the popular Korean entertainment TV market.
“I want to go to Korea as a student to network and hopefully get some jobs, because if I do go and learn the language, I want to stay and work. I want to know where I can apply for an English-speaking job that’s not teaching,” he said.
In the age of social media and LinkedIn, it can seem almost amazing how little information is available in the Korean job market for foreigners who are looking for something other than teaching English or taking part in government-sponsored internships more akin to cultural exchange programs.
The Korea Herald searched Korean Web portals to see where internships and job postings targeting foreigners were most often listed.
The best places to look for listings were the online career bulletins of individual universities’ global studies centers. Directly issued by the companies seeking good quality workers, these postings asked for specific nationalities and language skills. However, some of the information was limited to students with the school’s ID pass.
Listed openings stretched from part time translation jobs that paid 8,000 won ($6.90) an hour to English teaching positions with hourly rates of 40,000 won. The better-paying listings usually required the applicants to work roughly an hour or so away from Seoul. Other viable choices included market research, voice-over work, social media management and cosmetics marketing, some at sizable corporations. Generally, these notices came written in Korean with “no visa problems” as a requirement.
Nam Seung-hyun of Yonsei University’s Korean Language Institute, one of the more popular destinations for foreigners wishing to study the Korean language, said the school issues letters of support for foreign students in order for them to work a maximum 25 hours a week. The prerequisite for obtaining the letter is passing the preceding semester’s courses with 80 percent attendance.
The students, with the job offer and letter of support, should notify the national immigration office of the change in their working status to avoid future legal problems.
Platforms other than school websites for job seekers include Korean search portal Naver’s membership-only job coaching Internet communities and webpages Incruit, JobKorea and Albamon. These venues require signing up and reading the instructions and notices available only in Korean. The key words to be looking for are “waegukin,” meaning foreigner, and “chae-yong,” meaning employment. Ange, 30, who completed two corporate internships and now works as a regular employee at one of the nation’s largest retailers, believes that her time spent at a Korean graduate school was essential in landing her current corporate job.
She first arrived in Korea in 2009 and took on a company’s summer internship at 25 years old through her professor’s recommendation, doing market research for her homeland.
“I personally think an internship is necessary for getting into a Korean corporation, and that you have a better chance if you have attended a Korean educational institution. You would have a better understanding of the local culture and language, which makes your transition to a Korean working environment smoother.”
Ange said she never took the national Korean language proficiency test, TOPIK, but was interviewed in Korean for the internship.
“It’s better to be able to speak Korean. At least you’ll understand what people say. Usually at a Korean company, high-ranking bosses never speak English. There were about 10-15 of us interns from Korea, U.S., Russia, China and Indonesia, and among younger employees who knew English, a foreign intern from Harvard was still ostracized because she couldn’t respond to Korean conversations.”
|Studying in Korea offers foreigners a chance to immerse themselves in the country‘s culture. (Korea University Graduate School of International Studies)|
“After work, we collectively drank until 3 a.m. and reported back to work by 7 a.m. I lived at an hour’s distance from work. It was a Spartan training, but I had to bear it because it wasn’t just me who was having it hard. Our sunbaes (senior colleagues) were also going through the same ordeal.”
“At first I regretted choosing Korea a lot. There was no balance between work and life at all. Although it was same for everyone, the stress slowly began to take a toll on me. From where I come from, people begin their office hours at nine and get off at five. But my mindset that ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do,’ helped me get by,” said Ange, whose dream now is to become Korea’s first female foreign executive board member.
Ange urged foreigners looking for a full-time job in Korea to stay confident. “In Korea it’s not only about being smart. It’s equally important to have a strong mentality to bear the psychological stress.”
Effective Feb. 10, the Korean government eased regulations on E-7 work visas for foreigners who graduated with a bachelor’s degree or higher from an institution in Korea. This comes as a part of the “Human Free Trade Agreement” plan announced by President Park Geun-hye’s administration in December 2014 to spur economic growth.
The E-7 work visa is now granted to all degree holders regardless of the relevance between their major and their choice of career. The clause that had previously obligated graduates to hold a certain minimum GPA has also been scrapped. The leniency in visa issuance is stated as being specifically for “outstanding foreigners” who are “well acquainted with Korean language and culture.”
Graduates who were not immediately employed after graduation, should they wish to stay in Korea to continue seeking a job, can do so for a maximum of two years under the D-10 visa without having to have graduated with a 3.0 GPA or higher, National Technical Qualifications and an academic adviser’s recommendation, as were required before. For more information on the subject, visit immigration.go.kr.