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(EDITORIAL from the Korea Times on Jan. 17)

2014/01/17 07:03

Jobs for youth

Can't Korea come up with more 'creative' solutions?


Youth unemployment is not a problem that has just recently started. Nor is it unique to Korea: the ubiquitous presence of jobless youngsters across the world has given them the abominable label "the jobless generation."

   Nevertheless, Wednesday's job report was a rude awakener that reaffirmed the seriousness of the problem. The employment rate of people aged between 15 and 29 stood at 39.2 percent last year, the lowest level since the government first began collecting relevant data in 1982 and even lower than the level of the 1997-98 financial crisis.

Unfortunately, the situation is not expected to improve much this year, either. Recruitment officers of the nation's 30 largest business groups say they will freeze or even reduce new hiring in 2014, citing sharply rising labor costs resulting from "employment risks" such as a recent Supreme Court ruling on expanding the scope of ordinary wages, the extended retirement age and shorter working hours.

It was natural therefore that related officials hurriedly convened an inter-agency meeting Thursday, and decided to go all out to raise the youth employment rate as the core agenda of its three-year economic plan.

This is a welcome, albeit belated, move if for no other reason than finding jobs for the younger generation is crucial in realizing President Park Geun-hye new economic slogan of "4-7-4" -- 4-percent economic growth, a 70-percent employment rate and $40,000 in per capita income -- similar to Lee Myung-bak's "7-4-7," and created by only lowering the growth target from 7 percent to 4 percent, and replacing Lee's bluff to join the G7 with a more realistic employment rate.

Yet even the lowered objective will prove to be extremely difficult -- almost impossible -- for Park and her economic team to achieve. To hit their employment goal of 70 percent, the economy has to grow by at least 5 percent a year, way above the government's own goal of 3.9 percent. To avoid the failures of her predecessor, President Park is advised to drop the numerical targets but start by practicing another catchphrase of hers -- normalizing the abnormal -- in economic administration.

For instance, Seoul needs to break away from statistical fiction. Korea's jobless rate of 3 percent is the lowest in the OECD, and the nation's youth unemployment rate of 8 percent is almost enviable in comparison with some south European countries' 30-40 percent and with the U.S.' 12 percent. But the nation's overall jobless rate goes up much higher if it applies the same standards as the Western countries do, and it should calculate the youth unemployment rate by pulling down the upper limit of the age in this group to 24 years as most countries do, instead of 29.

Trivial as it may seem, the government should start by not deceiving itself and the people with massaged figures. Likewise, it ought to stop providing low-quality, temporary jobs to meet target numbers, and find ways to create jobs that better alleviate economic polarization and guarantee sustainable growth.

To solve the "mismatch" between the abundance of idle youth and manpower shortage at smaller firms, for instance, the government should seek ways to reduce the wage gap between large and small companies, and encourage big businesses to hire workers with experience at smaller firms. To induce business startups by young entrepreneurs, it also ought to expand the social safety net to make them less afraid of failure.

Again, substance -- not ostensible figures -- should be in the minds of officials on the task force to tackle this urgent matter.