Skills champions power industrialization
By Yu Jae-soub
What do Germany, Japan and Korea have in common? The three countries were either relatively less affected by the financial crisis that hit the world in 2008 or got out of it far faster than others. The first two industrial countries are traditional manufacturing powerhouses. Korea is a newly emerging power to challenge them.
All this comes in stark contrast to the situation in the United States. Once the world’s undisputed manufacturing superpower, America has been reduced to the epicenter of global financial turmoil because of its mistaken shift to financial capitalism with a relative disregard to manufacturing. It is small surprise then that not a few U.S. political and economic leaders are calling for a return to the heyday of ``Made-in-USA” labels.
It has been some time since Korea became a threat to the time-honored manufacturing strongholds of the G7 in key industrial areas, ranging from semiconductors and laptop computers to automobiles and shipbuilding or from chips to ships as global industrial experts put it.
Chung Ju-yung, the late founder of the Hyundai Group, once summed up the secret behind this rapid industrial emergence, saying, ``Korea’s biggest weapon is its skilled workers, who are by far the best in the world.” Lee Jae-yong, heir-apparent to Hyundai’s archival, Samsung Group, echoes this saying, ``Our competitiveness comes from the hands of expert technicians.” The priority the nation’s two largest conglomerates place on skilled manpower explains the reason for Korea’s dominance in the biennial ``WorldSkills Competition,” previously called the ``Skills Olympics.”
Perennial skills champion
The Korean national team, composed of 45 technicians, aged 22 years or younger, swept the 40th WorldSkills Competition in Calgary, Canada, last September. They won 13 gold, five silver and five bronze medals. Korea far outweighed runners-up Switzerland and Japan, which won seven and six gold medals, respectively.
Korea snatched its 16th championship trophy out of the 25 competitions the nation has taken part in since making its debut on the international stage in 1967.
In the capacity of the president of the Human Resources Development Service of Korea and also WorldSkills Korea, I had the honor of heading the Korean delegation to the Calgary competition. Even before leaving home, I could be quite certain of outstanding performances by our delegates, who, though young, proved to be the best technicians in their respective fields by passing the fierce domestic selection process. In addition, they never left the training camp even during the dog days of last summer, honing their skills to near perfection and repeating expected tasks to complete them within a given time.
Such a brilliant track record in the 60-year-old, 51-nation competition reflects Korea’s spectacular economic growth. These technicians have powered the country’s industrialization.
The close relationship between the nation’s industrialization and its performances at the Skills Olympics is also demonstrated by changes in categories in which Korea now excels. For example, Korea’s first gold medals came from tailoring and shoemaking. This reflected the nation’s strength in the textile-apparel and footwear industries in its initial stage of industrialization. Likewise, it showed excellence in the machinery field in the 1970s and ’80s, where Korea experienced sharp growth in manufacturing and heavy industries. These were followed by IT areas such as information processing, and the services sectors _ including hairdressing and cooking _ and the nation’s current strong point is _ what else? _ Mobile robotics.
However, the nation has a long way to go not just to maintain its irrefutable superiority in the skills competition, but to link the technical excellence to manufacturing dominance.
Above all, there still remains a strong prejudice against manual workers and vocational trainees in our society. According to opinion polls conducted by my organization, more than one third of Koreans think of manual workers as lower-class people _ those engaged in 3-D (dangerous, dirty and difficult) jobs. The nation’s time-honored vocational bias against artisans by putting them below scholars and farmers seems hard to kill.
Better treatment for manual workers
Nearly half of those people said the social perception of skilled workers must change A survey conducted by the Korea Labor Institute also confirms this point: Up to 80 percent of respondents agreed that a skilled workforce has made a contribution to the nation’s economic development, but about a similar percentage also said the workers were not receiving the corresponding treatment from society.
Also problematic is the social preference of college graduates rooted deeply in the Korean people’s consciousness, which forces young technicians to seek higher learning even though more study does not always help _ sometimes it even hinders _ their technical development, resulting in a waste of their precious time, money and energy.
Compare this with examples of major foreign countries, which boast the world’s top manufacturing competitiveness. In Germany, ``meisters” _ meaning master craftsmen in German _ enjoy far better social and economic status than most college graduates. There are about 967,000 small businesses run by meisters, which hire up to 4.8 million workers, indicating from where Germany’s technical prowess comes from. Japan for its part introduced the ``modern artisan” system and enacted the ``Law to Facilitate the Development of Manufacturing Skills” as early as two decades ago, a decade earlier than Korea. The Japanese people reportedly see no need for such a phrase as a ``preference for skilled workers,” because people with a high degree of crafts receive the best treatment from society, which dearly maintains the tradition of cultivating technical masters from generation to generation.
Korea has also begun to operate and revive ``meister high schools” and ``specialized vocational high schools,” a move that goes in the right direction. The nation should make at least two changes for their success. First, Korea must overhaul its educational system by dividing students into two groups _ those who complete colleges and those who jump into vocational training after finishing high school or even middle school, as is the case in many European countries.
Second, the nation should overhaul the economic system, in which skilled workers can lead lives at least as decent as those led by people with college diplomas.
Major conglomerates, including Samsung and Hyundai, offer special favors to technical experts in employment, financial rewards and promotion.
Samsung, for instance, has held the group’s own Skills Olympics since 2008 to create an environment which respects technicians and upgrades employees’ standards of skill. Hyundai also rewards its employees who win prizes at international skills contests. They receive cash awards of up to 200 million won and citations from the group chairman. Like Samsung, the world’s fifth largest automaker offers special promotions and pay rises to excellent technicians. Other large business enterprises, including POSCO and the GS Group, are eager to secure as many young skilled workers as possible.
Comprehensive support system
The government should come up with policies that can match these corporate examples. It is not sitting idly by of course. The government finalized a its policy package to improve the treatment of outstanding technicians to match the levels given to medal winners at global athletic contests, at a recent emergency economic meeting chaired by President Lee Myung-bak. For example, it has decided to continue to exempt excellent male technicians from military duty, despite the abolition of the industrial trainee system.
Seoul should do more. In short, the government needs to create the same environment for the participants in global skills contests as that for sports competitions. Most urgent in this regard is the early construction of a comprehensive training center for technicians, similar to the Korea National Training Center in Taeneung, Seoul, better known as the Taeneung Athletes’ Village. Policymakers also ought to promote award winners at various international competitions as ``skills stars,” comparable to sports stars and entertainment industry idols to encourage a larger number of adolescents to jump into the world of skills training. Turning those young technical talents into national brands will certainly help upgrade the international image of Korea as a world ``technical superpower.”
The world-class vocational training center will be necessary for both Korean and foreign technicians. Policy-makers need to keep in mind that the United Arab Emirates government requested Korea’s support for its participation in the WorldSkills Competition, as one of the conditions for signing a $20-billion nuclear power plant deal last December.
The UAE is not alone. Up to 400 workers from Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa come to the Human Resources Development Services of Korea for technical training, especially to learn how the country cultivated its industrial workforce, as well as its state system for technical qualification management. Our agency is pushing for an international center for the promotion of vocational training to activate such exchange programs.
The larger number of foreigners we train, the bigger the chances for Korean businesses and workers to advance into their countries, cementing the nation’s status not just as a global skills champion but as a world manufacturing superpower.
No matter how fast modern technology develops in the future, there must be areas in which machines can never replace human hands completely, especially in this era of industrial diversification. Our mission will be to put Korea in the van of such a brave, new technical front.
Changes in Korea’s skills power
Korea has solidified its status as the world’s undisputed champion in skills power. The country has won 16 out of the 25 WorldSkills Competitions. According to the Human Resources Development Service of Korea, the nation’s first gold medals came at the 16th Skills Olympics in Madrid in 1967, when Hong Geun-sam, now 70, won the tailoring event, and Bae Jin-hyo, 62, took first place in shoemaking, respectively. The duo, the first champions in a technical competition since the foundation of the Republic of Korea, returned home amid a national welcome as warm as those given to the soccer players who advanced to the Group of 16 in the 2010 South Africa World Cup earlier this year.
At the 24th competition in Busan in 1978 when Korea was focusing on the heavy and chemical industries, Yang Han-seok won in the milling section. Yang, 52, is currently serving as the principal of Gangseo Vocational High School, teaching students to follow in his footsteps. In the 1980s when ``my car boom” began to sweep the nation, Korean participants showed excellence in machinery areas, especially in auto-related parts. In the Buckingham, Britain, competition in 1989, Chung Ho-sun won the first prize in precision machinery. Korea entered into the information era with the popularization of home computers in the 1990s. As if to reflect the trend, Kim Sung-min, 35, won the silver medal in information processing, which was introduced for the first time in the 30th competition in Lyon, France, in 1990. Given the nation’s lagging standards in the IT industry at the time, even winning the runner-up place was no small feat.
Now the time of the information era has passed to enter into the days of mobile equipment and robotics. It is small surprise then that two high-school juniors, Choi Mun-seok and Kim Won-young, won in the mobile robotics category in Calgary last September.
Benefits for skill masters
The government announced ``measures to improve the treatment for outstanding technicians” on May 27, aimed at severing the vicious cycle of dwindling skilled manpower and the graying of the industrial work force, as well as creating a social climate in which skilled manpower can live with pride and honor like their counterparts in Germany and Japan.
According to the policy package, the financial rewards to winners at Skills Olympics, currently accounting for only 74 percent of those given to medalists at sports Olympics in the case of prize money and a mere 37 percent in the case of annual annuities, respectively, will rise to similar levels.
The exemption from military duty for the most skilled manpower, which was scheduled to expire from 2012, will also remain in force, benefiting a total of 482 male medalists at Skills Olympics.
In addition, the government will overhaul the system to select and manage outstanding technicians. In keeping with the latest inter-industrial convergence, it will change its technical classification system based on industrial sectors to a technique-oriented one. The government will also streamline its database of skilled manpower by careers and workplaces to enhance public relations activities. For instance, the government will air commercials for restaurants, which hire medal-winning chefs.
Also in store is a program to provide various channels for skill masters who graduate vocational schools and want to enter universities. On a temporary basis, young technicians can enroll at two-year colleges jointly run by small- and medium-sized enterprises and attend night and weekend classes, before knocking on the door of four-year universities.
A ranking official responsible for skills promotion said, ``By the time these steps are activated, we can say at least the basis will have been established for Korea to offer the preferential treatment to skilled manpower that the governments of Germany and Japan do.”
Who is the writer?
The writer is the president of the Human Resources Development Service of Korea. He obtained a masters degree in labor-management relationship at the Graduate School of Soongsil University, and completed executive leadership course at Korea University Graduate School. Based on his long experience on the industrial scene as both a laborer and a union leader, Yoo is regarded as a person who well understands the difficulties Korean workers experience. An author of various studies on labor affairs, he received the Order of Industrial Merit, the Gold Tower, in 2007 for his contribution to the nation’s industrial peace and development.