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[Herald Interview] 'Amid aging population, Korea to invite more young professionals from overseas'

Rapidly shrinking population in homogenous society may require foreign engineers, scientists, teachers, IT professionals in future, says KEIS head

By Lee Jaeeun

Published : April 24, 2024 - 18:18

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Kim Young-jung, President of the Korea Employment Information Service, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on March 27. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Kim Young-jung, President of the Korea Employment Information Service, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on March 27. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

As South Korea grapples with a shrinking population, it is increasingly turning to foreign workers to fill crucial roles.

Today, labor from overeseas is concentrated in low-paying unskilled jobs, but in the future, many will be hired to perform highly skilled work, according to Kim Young-Jung, president of the Korea Employment Information Service. Highly skilled jobs may include engineers, scientists, teachers, managers and IT professionals, he said.

“Korea is getting more and more in need of all kinds of labor. The manpower shortage in Korea is not necessarily limited to manual or nonprofessional labor, but highly educated workers are also needed," he said, in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.

This prospect indicates that Korean society must prepare for coexistence with immigrants.

“When foreign workers come to Korea, we have to mix with them and live together in society,” Kim said. “We need to work together in terms of social integration so that the influx of foreigners does not create social conflicts with the existing population.”

Kim, formerly a senior policymaker in the Labor Ministry, noted that Korea could still rely on tapping into potential workers from the economically inactive population, including retirees and stay-at-home parents, for the next few years.

“With an aging population and falling birth rate, the youth population will rapidly decrease. Companies here will face the risk of going out of business due to a lack of employees. However, Korea fortunately has a relatively large idle workforce compared to other countries. These human resources need to be utilized.”

Starting in 2028, the economically active population, which has remained steady over the years, will begin to decline, pushing Korea to face a situation it has never experienced before due to the shortage of workers, he said. This suggests that Korea may have to increase the nation’s reliance bringing people into the workforce, as well as imported labor.

In particular, due to the falling birth rate, South Korea's youth population will shrink by 1 million by 2030.

“Currently, Suwon, the largest city and the capital of Gyeonggi Province, has a population of about 1.2 million, and we are going to lose as many young people as the population of that city by 2030," he said.

Kim also encouraged people from many countries to work in Korea, saying it would be a good experience in their lives.

“As a country that owns Samsung, Korea is not only a country with a well-developed technology industry but also a cultural powerhouse that owns all kinds of content such as K-pop, K-drama and K-movies. This attractive country needs all kinds of labor. So I hope more people will be interested and look for employment in Korea.”

As the head of the KEIS, Kim also anticipates further changes in job information services, particularly for immigrant workers.

“Currently, there are a small number of immigrant workers compared to Korean nationals, so there is no separate job service system optimized for them yet," he said. "However, if the number of immigrant workers increases in the future, there is a chance that the KEIS will also be able to launch employment services for them.”

Currently, the KEIS participates in the employment permit system that allows companies that cannot find domestic workers to legally hire foreign workers.

The KEIS, a semi-governmental organization under the Ministry of Employment and Labor, is a specialized organization dedicated to providing employment information and vocational guidance.

It operates 14 employment information systems, including the portal WorkNet, as well as systems for employment insurance and human resources development (HRD-Net). For instance, when Koreans want to find a job, they can access WorkNet to check job postings, and on HRD-Net, they can check a list of vocational training classes offered by the government to expand their capabilities, such as courses on coding, or skills as a dental hygienist or law firm assistant.

It also uses employment and labor data to contribute to policy recommendations for employment trends, labor market demands, employment services, career guidance, job evaluation, youth policies and the formulation of employment policies.

In the near future, the agency should develop and stabilize the services that incorporate new technologies into employment services, Kim said.

Their services include an AI job matching service, which analyzes registered resumes with AI technology and customizes and recommends jobs suitable for job seekers through big data analytics, and the KEIS-issued licenses in the form of digital badges, which provide certificate credentials with digital badges based on non-fungible tokens.

Also, Kim seeks to develop a Korean version of O-Net, a free online database that contains thousands of job definitions, occupational characteristics and worker requirements information across the Korean economy to help students, job seekers, businesses and workforce development professionals.

Having been famous for its world-class job information and employment support services since its foundation in 2006, the KEIS is now setting its sights on international cooperation, Kim stressed.

“The KEIS has played the role of ‘people's job navigation’ so that anyone can find a job they want comfortably and quickly at any time," said Kim. "After years of the agency's efforts, South Korea has become the best country at providing customized and digital-based employment information service.”

South Korea ranked second in the OECD Digital Government Index for two consecutive years from 2022.

As part of efforts for Official Development Assistance, the KEIS has already handed down its systems to several countries, such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Mongolia.

“Korea also learned a lot from advanced countries before reaching this level. Since sharing what we know does not mean losing what we already have, we try to teach everything that we have to countries that want to learn.”

In order to introduce the agency’s activities and achievements internationally, improve international awareness, and increase opportunities for cooperation with other countries, the organization launched the KEIS e-Letter, an English-language newsletter on Korean employment trends and labor market information, last January.

The newsletter is free and is distributed to 80 member nations of the World Association of Public Employment Services. It is also published on the KEIS website for free public access.

Profile

President Kim Young-jung entered the public service at the Ministry of Labor and Employment in 1993 after passing the administrative examination. In the ministry, Kim worked as director of labor market and employment policy. In May 2023, Kim was appointed as the KEIS president. Kim majored in management at Seoul National University and acquired his master's degree in public administration at the same school and later a Ph.D. in public administration from the University of Colorado.