'Korean dream' has a long way to go
Shift from brain drain to talent circulation
By Kang Ye-won
Brain drain has long been issue for Korea because of the large numbers of students and professionals who move abroad.
But now, foreign talent is choosing to come here, and encouraging professionals from abroad to continue working in Korea is a priority.
S. Imtiaz Ali is a veteran expat in Korea from India. With his Korean wife Sara, Ali advises some 3,000 highly skilled Indian workers here and also trains local companies on how best to work with foreign talent.
“We stand in between two cultures and (the job) fits me,” Ali said in a phone interview.
He gained his Ph.D. degree at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in 2007, and he has worked for various companies including SK Chemicals and LG Life Sciences. Currently, he is a marketing manager with Samsung Medison, a subsidiary of Samsung Electronics.
Nearly 7,000 Indians work in Korea, mostly as engineers and technologists for big companies and universities.
They come to Korea to gain work experience and earn higher salaries, but after three or four years, Indians often return home because of poor educational support and a hostile environment for their children.
There are only a few international schools in Korea and worse, they are expensive — with a minimum monthly fee of 1 million won or about $850 — which is often not sponsored by employers.
That’s why more than half the expats Ali met when he first came to Korea have returned home.
“I personally like working here, it matches my working style, but if I had kids, I would leave this country, too,” he said.
Global talent competition
In January, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology launched “Brain return 500,” a project that aims to bring back 500 talented workers from abroad by 2017.
It is part of the government’s initiatives to nurture domestic scientists and technologists, as shown by the International Science and Business Belt (ISBB) in Sejong City, modeled on famous research institutes such as RIKEN in Japan.
But so far, the project has yet to outline specific objectives, other than the aspirations of its mission statement.
“We will be able to provide the roadmap by the end of this year,” said Yun Yeong-in, the ISBB’s assistant director.
Although it is undeniable that a return of skilled migrants adds value to the country, more experts have argued that the focus should be not so much on combating brain drain but rather on stimulating talent circulation.
In other words, strengthening a network of talent overseas will help transfer knowledge and information that will ultimately flow back to home countries, according to the OECD’s latest report on global talent.
China has been at the forefront of chasing and attracting international talent. The Thousand Talent Program, which started in 2008, aims to hire academics and entrepreneurs from around the world in 10 years, and late last year it made additional 1,000 offers to foreign experts, specifically.
Bae Min-keun, an economist at LG Economic Research Institute, agreed that when it comes to talent recruitment, state borderlines have become blurred.
“We cannot have, and don’t need to have all the resources, that is why we need to expand our talent pool and think more globally in order to find the right kind of skills,” Bae said.
He added that some Koreans still believe in “ethnic homogeneity” and that corporate human resources teams tend to favor Korean nationals over others, which contributes to a turn-off factor regarding international qualifications, Bae said.
When it comes to racial and ethnic prejudice against foreigners, Korea still has a long way to go.
For foreign families who decide to raise children here, discrimination is a shared experience, especially amongst other Asian ethnicities including Indian, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh natives.
S. Lee, a Korean-American, who relocated to Daejeon in 2010 to work for a French pharmaceutical company, described the different treatment expats experience according to their race.
“European or American friends of mine are pretty happy here whereas my Southeast Asian friends, who are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, feel discriminated against a lot, they’re really smart guys but they are often treated like factory workers or illegal immigrants,” Lee said.
“We do need a lot of global talent in Korea but including people with more diverse backgrounds,” he said.
Poor consideration of language and cultural barriers is another hurdle for international workers.
Small-and-medium companies, in many cases, rarely have staff who can communicate in English, Ali said. And large companies, too, fall short of making gestures that can make a difference to the quality of people’s lives.
For example, general meetings which all employees attend are conducted in Korean so foreign co-workers are often excluded from any discussions. Moreover, many company cafeterias do not serve vegetarian dishes, which most Indians prefer.