By Yoon Ja-young
The government will allow highly skilled foreign professionals to stay in Korea for longer periods. They can invite more family members to Korea and their spouses will also be permitted to get jobs such as language instructors.
These are some of the measures to attract talented and highly skilled foreign workers, unveiled Wednesday.
"The government will overhaul the visa system for each profession, to favor foreign professionals who have demonstrated ability," Strategy and Finance Minister Yoo Il-ho said at an economy-related ministers' meeting.
The announcement comes amid concerns that Korea will face shortages in its talented workforce.
Highly skilled workers are essential for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but Korea faces problems of low birthrate and an aging population. Lack of workers is also a chronic problem at small- and medium-sized enterprises.
While the number of foreigners staying in Korea has been growing steeply, from 1.4 million in 2011 to over 2 million in 2016, only a few of them, or 48,000, are categorized as professionals. Most of the 48,000 are language instructors or chefs, while professors and researchers only account for 12 percent.
They don't stay in Korea for lengthy periods, either. Over half of foreign professionals stay here less than three years, while only 6 percent stay for more than 10 years.
The government noted that the current visa system is not organized well enough to attract highly skilled professionals. For instance, it does not distinguish between world-class chefs working at five-star hotels and ordinary cooks. They are subject to the same visa system.
The government plans to overhaul the visa system this year, to favor professionals with expertise who earn high incomes. For instance, they can currently invite only their spouses and children, but the invitation visa will be expanded to include their parents and spouses.
Experts have been pointing out that Korea is not an attractive option for foreign professionals in terms of language, culture or job opportunities for their spouses.
For instance, spouses of foreign professionals cannot get jobs as English instructors even if they are fluent in English, unless they come from one of the seven English-speaking countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. The government plans to open the system up for those from other countries as long as they meet certain qualifications.
"While the spouses don't have many job opportunities, the restrictions have been too strict regarding which jobs they can get," the government explained in the media release.
Spouses of foreign graduate students majoring in science or engineering will also be allowed to get jobs in diverse sectors.
The government also came up with plans to attract more foreign students in science and engineering. It looks to expand scholarship programs for Central Asians, Southeast Asians and Africans. Those who intend to work in Korea will be given advantages in admission to graduate schools.