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close this bookThe Transition of Youth from School to Work: Issues and Policies (IIEP, 2000, 188 p.)
close this folderChapter III. Transition from school to work in Korea: reforms to establish a new pathway structure across education and the labour market by Kioh Jeong
View the documentIntroduction
View the document1. Economic adjustment and youth in Korea
View the document2. Roles of institutions in school-to-work transition
View the document3. From school to work: business and industry involvement
View the document4. Ongoing education reform and implications for youth
View the document5. Conclusions: developing pathways

2. Roles of institutions in school-to-work transition

2.1 The missing function of channelling students to work

A study by the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training (KRIVET), after extensive research on unemployment training programmes, concluded with the following five remarks (KRIVET, 1998):

· high level of mismatch between the study at school and the job opportunity is the main cause of unemployment of those with high educational attainment;

· youth and unskilled workers with low educational attainment became exposed to the high risk of long-term unemployment;

· significant loss of learning is taking place due to the downward job-seeking by the university and college graduates, mainly among those who majored in managerial and social sciences.

The three points above indicate the roles and limits of educational institutions in Korea. Schools and institutions in Korea do not usually care about the future career of the students on graduation. To make matters worse, career guidance activities are not organised within the system. Such a weakness is well revealed in the survey by KRIVET mentioned above. The survey reported that among the government-funded re-employment training programmes, those run by the higher education institutions were found to make the least effort to find jobs for the trainees. It is not a strange discovery at all.

Many experts in vocational education and training used to suggest that career guidance should be encouraged and systematically embedded in the school system to address the rising unemployment. Considering the importance of the right career choice, such an argument makes a sense. However, in this critical situation, what is of primary importance is not so much the quality of students' individual career decisions and job search behaviour but rather the structural problem of unchanging programmes and curricular contents. Since the end of the 1980s, businesses and enterprises have strongly accused the educational institutions of their irresponsiveness to changing industrial demands. This was, in fact, a signal of changing employment practices from the selection of top-ranking university graduates irrespective of their majors.

Many policy-makers and observers consider the rigid and outmoded curricula as conditioned by the highly stable and ageing teaching force in the system. In Korea, all the teachers substantially have tenure, and the education sector has the least mobility. For the vocational high schools, the closed and unchanging teaching force has been, over a decade, the major obstacle to the desirable curricular change accommodating industrial demands. As a result, the drop-out rate in the vocational high schools continues to increase (Table 7). To a considerable extent, the same is true in higher education. Recently, it was observed that business services and communication offer rapidly growing jobs (C.W. Jang, 1999:45-56). For these expanding jobs, university students tend to enrol in training programmes off campus. Some universities are trying to bring these programmes for on-campus delivery. However most institutions are still inactive and very slow in curricular change.

Table 7. Drop-outs in high schools (per cent)











General high schools





Vocational high schools





Source: Ministry of Education, Korea.

Amid the rising higher educational aspirations of the people, the government, in 1990, legislated a law obligating local authorities to increase enrolment of vocational high schools equal to that of academically oriented institutions. This legislative measure halted the slow decline of enrolment figures in vocational high schools. Strong emphasis was placed upon this policy, supplying a workforce from vocational high schools to manufacturing industries, which had already begun to lose competitiveness. As a result, during the first half of the 1990s, vocational high school enrolment figures increased from 35.5 per cent in 1990 to 42.2 per cent in 1995.

The government policy, underpinning the declining enrolment in vocational high schools, has been sharply criticized by educators in general and some industrial policy experts. They argued that the government subsidized the marginalizing industries indirectly by supplying cheap labour via the vocational high schools, and through this, the government has only delayed necessary industrial adjustment, thus suppressing individual development. In the midst of an economic crisis, the government paid heed to their argument, and began to reconsider the role of vocational high schools.

The prestige of vocational education at the upper-secondary level until the 1970s has rapidly declined because upper-secondary education itself has now become universal. As a pillar of upper-secondary education, during the initial stage of industrialization, it effectively served the rapidly developing economy, while later becoming a sector of typical educational stigma, just a manpower vessel impinging the developing economy. We should redefine vocational education's role within the education system by re-articulating interdependencies with academic high schools and post-secondary higher education institutions.

2.2 Roles played by non-formal education and training institutions

Considering the limited role of formal education institutions and the qualification system in school-to-work transition, one must find the pathway to work other than the formal educational pathways. In that respect, the role of non-formal education and training institutions should be revisited. In 1998, there were more than 110,000 institutions, of which most were run on a proprietary basis. Students of formal institutions, before or after graduation, used to attend programmes on those institutions for the purpose of preparation for jobs.

Due to the lack of extensive studies, there is little knowledge of this sector. The non-formal education and training sector features far more dynamics than the formal education sector. However, the quality and performance of the programmes are not assured due to the poor financial condition and managerial instability.

Currently, institutions participating in the run of government-funded training for the unemployed are coming mostly from this sector. Table 8 outlines the participant institutions by their institutional nature. Considering the enormous budgetary amount, improving the performance of this sector is an important policy task.

Table 8. Education and training institutions participating in employment training

Total (non-formal)

Training centre (public)

Training centre (recognised)

Independent public training centres

Private education businesses

Corporate education centres

Higher education institutions








Source: Ministry of Education, Korea.

2.3 Diplomas and degrees: qualification for work or credential of esteem?

Generally speaking, the signalling effect of the certifications and degrees issued by schools and institutions play a great role in the school-to-work transition. However, it is hardly true of Korean education. The educational credentials have shown little relation to jobs and vocational qualification. The curricular constraint mentioned above is closely related with this limitation of diplomas and degrees. They have served more as credentials of the institutions' general prestige in the education system than as market signals of labour supply. The curricular constraints and lack of qualification information have incurred much expenditure for on-the-job training and transaction cost in workforce management. From businesses' point of view, a great loss of employment capacity originates from the above problems of education and qualification.

The qualifications in Korea have long been under overwhelming statutory control. The state qualification system worked relatively well in the time of nation building and government-driven development. However, as the Korean economy progresses and occupational complexity increases, the state control on qualifications began losing its effectiveness due to the lack of flexibility to respond to occupational changes.

Both academic qualifications and technical qualifications are main parts of the statutory system in Korea. The former has been so since the establishment of the modern education system and the latter since 1976 when the government enacted the National Technical Qualification Act. When Korean society and the economy were manageably simple, such a statutory control was a source of transparency and reliability to encourage human capital formation and transactions. The statutory nature of the system, however, has now become restrictive, rather than promoting all the progressive initiatives in the society. This is because the statutory rules cannot quickly be adapted to the occupational and technical changes.

2.4 Schools and universities' role for lifelong investment in learning

Korean education has achieved outstandingly rapid expansion in secondary and higher education during a short period. The school attendance rate at the respective schooling age group marks one of the highest. Such rapid educational expansion can improve the accommodation of the school-age youth, but improving the skill profile of the total population is, however, a different matter. There exists a striking imbalance between the rapidly expanded size of schooling and the skill profile of the total population, that has improved very slowly.

The Manpower Outlook (1998) made by the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training (KRIVET) summarized the national skill profile as "overflow of low skills, and a shortage of high skills". The report explains the Korean economic crisis in the light of the manpower limit that hinders structural adjustment in the economy. The outlook observed the clear demands for refined skills, that is, the intermediate skills once listed by the OECD, particularly in services and managerial occupations, which can be met only by education and training at the tertiary level.

Korea's labour force does not meet with the skill-level demands required by industry or the skills necessary to further economic progress. Many Koreans recently began feeling themselves short of the necessary skills to survive the technological and industrial changes. The skill base of the Korean economy was, from the beginning of the 1990s, already lagging far behind the level to secure sustainable development into a fully industrialized economy. Now, of the economically active population aged 25 to 64, workers with school attainment below junior high school comprise 39 per cent and high-school graduates account for 41 per cent. The above-mentioned picture of unemployment in the NSO survey is the proof of the extent to which the Korean economy falls short of the needed skill base to develop further.

The imbalance between the school-age population and the total working population is another expression of the serious shortcomings of the Korean education system, that is, the segmentation of the labour market into the primary market and the secondary market. Few opportunities for adult learning and the lack of lifelong learning perspectives and practices are substantial indicators of segmentation. As is shown in Table 9, learning opportunities for Korean workers are very restricted.

Table 9. Participation-rate in adult learning




























Source: OECD, "Education at a glance", 1997; Korea Education Development Institute.

Limited adult learning opportunities in Korea have been caused by many factors. An important weakness of the Korean education system is that once one leaves school, if not employed in a big enterprise, one can get little or no opportunity to come back to acquire new skills. For adult learners, various impediments exist in Korea: rigid school enrolment policy, long working hours, insufficient provision of adult learning programmes, lack of government concern for adult learning, and so on.

The lack of a lifelong learning perspective within the education system has much influence upon the transition from school to work. For Korean youth, education is a tournament-based pathway where, if one loses a game, one drops out and never returns. Table 10 summarizes the picture very well. In Korea, opportunities for higher education are not dispersed among youth as in OECD countries. Once losing the opportunity of higher education, it is unlikely that it will be granted again. In a way, Korean universities play the role of gatekeeper of the segmented labour market and, to that extent, form the biggest obstacle to skill development of the whole workforce.

Table 10. Rate of participation in higher education by age

Age 18-21

Age 22-25

Age 26-29





OECD average




Source: OECD, "Education at a glance", 1997.

It was not until 1993, when the government enacted the Employment Insurance Act, that the government came to recognize that skill development of the adult workforce should be part of the national agenda. The Employment Insurance Act, emphasizing vocational skill development, stipulates that employment insurance funds should finance vocational competence development activities: promotion of in-plant training, job training for the unemployed, and training for employment adjustment. The training levy system that has been working since 1976 is now absorbed into the vocational ability development programmes under the employment insurance system.

2.5. Deregulation and regulatory reform

Schools and institutions offering vocational education cannot initiate an active response to youth unemployment without extensive deregulation. Typical examples were seen in the contract-based high school-junior college alliances. As higher education institutions, junior colleges can negotiate freely with vocational high schools. Vocational high schools, however, do not have enough discretion to negotiate with junior colleges. The National curriculum and other rules imposed by national and local education authorities disallow vocational schools the discretion needed. This imbalance of discretionary power between partners of the contract frequently hampers the progress of joint initiatives. Deregulation in vocational education has been an imminent reform issue.

The situation is rather worse in the training sector than in vocational high schools. In the course of the intra-government regulatory reform drive, deregulation bears fruit very slowly. To speed up deregulation, transforming vocational institutions into independent agencies has been called for by reformists, but so far in vain. The National curricula for vocational high schools have also been under review with regard to their possible removal.

Vocational education and training seems particularly susceptible to fall to the trap of government failure. In this field, people tend to imprudently accept government intervention and large-scale public programmes, particularly when the economy contracts. That is exactly what happened during the vocational high school expansion in the 1990s. The very same is happening now in the training sector, with the economic crisis and high unemployment. The current economic crisis is greatly hampering the deregulatory progress of vocational education reform.