The future of teaching English in Korea, part 1: How competitive is it to find a public school job?
“Positions in Korean public schools are becoming increasingly competitive.”
This is something you hear a lot; I’ve written it myself on here a few times. Sometimes you will hear even more alarmist things. “GEPIK is finished.” “The recruiters all have waiting lists.” “There are ten applicants for every EPIK position.” “In five years, there won’t be any native teachers at public schools in Korea.”
But what is the truth of all this? Official figures are hard to find, and much of it seems to exist only on the ever-rampant, never-terribly-reliable foreigner community grapevine.
This is part one of a two-part article on the future of teaching English in Korea. Part one is my look at the reasons given for the supposed competitiveness of public school teaching positions these days. Part two will look at future trends, and career prospects for people who want to stay in Korea.
Note: Since I first wrote this, EPIK has released some figures on the number of applicants it receives. So I can now say fairly reliably that your chances of getting accepted into EPIK are about 1 in 3, and probably not worse than 1 in 4 (at least, for now).
The reasons most often given for why jobs have allegedly become so much more competitive are really economic factors: an equation of supply and demand. On the supply side, you hear about the continuing poor state of Western economies, people staying longer in Korea, and an increased awareness of Korea: both as a country generally and as a place to teach English specifically. On the demand side, there is only one factor – cuts in public school positions. I’ll look at each of these things.
The lousy shape of Western economies
When I began, I thought that this would not be much of a factor. My reasoning was that I have rarely met people in Korea who say that they came because they couldn’t find work back home. My feeling was that coming to Korea is too radical a step for that to be the main reason, and that most people come for other reasons – a desire to travel, to live overseas, to “have an experience”. (On the other hand, I’ve met many people who list a lack of job prospects back home as a reason to stay another year – but I’ll get to that later.)
Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a factor; it may be a subconscious reason. Someone with a promising job back home may never consider coming to Korea, while someone who is having difficulty finding the job they want may be more open to considering other possibilities.
Here is the unemployment rate for the United States since the middle of 2008. I think we can ignore the rates for the other English speaking countries, as Americans make up such a large proportion of the English teachers in Korea.
Yes, it’s still high – but it’s lower than it was when I first came to Korea four years ago, and continues to decline. I’ll get to the significance of this graph later, and I do think it is significant – but it can’t be a reason for jobs being more competitive now than they were four years ago.
Conclusion: Undoubtedly a factor, but less so than it used to be, and it can’t possibly be causing an increase in competitiveness compared to a few years ago
People not going home
As I mentioned, I have met very few people who have told me that they came to Korea because they couldn’t get a job back home, but I have known a lot of people who have decided to stay an extra year because of, among other reasons, the potential difficulty of finding a job if they went back home. However, as already illustrated, this must logically be less of a reason for people to stay than it was four years ago.
There is another factor to consider – for every new intake, there is a very small minority who are going to like Korea a lot, and potentially stay in Korea for a very long time, if not forever – people who will seek to make stable lives for themselves in Korea with no plans to go home.
Now, I’m not enough of a game theorist to work this out – given the above factors, does the number of newly available positions decline continuously, or do you reach a point of equilibrium after a while? I assume the latter, but have no idea how to work it out. And if it does reach an equilibrium, how long does it take?
A further complication comes with what might be called “The Squeeze”. As public school positions are cut, a fair percentage of those affected people are likely to want to stay in Korea, at least for another year. They flood into the market for available jobs, and obviously have an advantage over new applicants, reducing considerably the number of available positions for new teachers.
Conclusion: A factor, though I think you’d need to do computer modelling to work out its significance.
When I was younger, teaching English in Japan was a thing people did, or at least talked about doing. These days, I don’t hear so much about teaching in Japan, and while I don’t know terribly much about the topic, everything I hear is that JET is brutally difficult to get in to.
It seems to me that teaching English in Korea has replaced teaching in Japan as part of the zeitgeist; that it is an idea young people have of something they can possibly do, in the way that teaching in Japan was “in the air” when I was a teenager and at university.
As well, awareness of South Korea as a country has grown tremendously over the past five or so years. Here is a graph from Google Trends illustrating that growing awareness – search volume since the middle of 2008 for two terms, Kpop and Samsung:
This is what I might call the “zeitgeist effect”, and before I started this, I thought it was probably the main factor making English teaching jobs in Korea more competitive. However, when I changed the google search terms to things more directly related to teaching in Korea, I was surprised to see no evidence of this zeitgeist effect.
The terms “teach Korea” and “teaching English in Korea” both seem to peak around the first half of 2009, with a steady decline of interest thereafter. What does this suggest to you?
To me, it looks a lot like the previous graph I posted of US unemployment rates, suggesting that this is the main factor in terms of interest in teaching English in Korea, and that the zeitgeist has nothing to do with it. So, I was wrong.
The searches for public school programs, GEPIK and EPIK, seem a little different, with peaks – if at all – occurring about a year later. Does this suggest anything to you? My first thought is that this probably occurs around the times when those programs were hiring the most people, suggesting that these search terms are more indicative of the demand side of things.
Conclusion: surprisingly to me, there doesn’t appear to be a wave of K-pop fans newly rushing to teach English in Korea, and the zeitgeist has nothing to do with it.
Job cuts and budget cuts in public schools
Ever since I first came to Korea, the general trend has been to cut the budgets for native speaking teachers in public schools. In particular, SMOE (Seoul) and GEPIK (Gyeonggi-do) have announced so many drastic cuts that it is almost surprising that anyone is still employed there at all. Here is GEPIK cutting the budget in 2011, and again in 2013. The major SMOE cuts seem to have occurred in 2012. In population terms, these two programs cover roughly half of Korea, so the cuts are significant.
On the other hand, EPIK intakes appear to be reasonably stable, at least at the moment – the Spring 2013 intake is about 800, “slightly higher” than the previous intake. I have these newsletters going back to August 2011, and here are the numbers given for each intake:
September 2011 – 970
March 2012 – 776
September 2012 – 603
March 2013 – slightly less than “approximately 800”
September 2013 – “approximately 800”
If there is a trend there, I can’t see it.
Conclusion: While there have been cuts, and undoubtedly this has affected competition for the remaining positions, the situation is far from dire, particularly when you consider that the evidence seems to suggest there is less interest in teaching in Korea than there was at the heights of the financial crisis and US unemployment.
I said before that this is a question of economics, and when you add up supply and demand, what you theoretically should get is not “jobs have become more competitive”, but a price – in this case, a salary. The oldest EPIK pay scale I can find on the internet is this blog comment from 2007 – and the pay was the same then as it is now.
In economic terms, salaries are “sticky” – meaning you can put them up any time you want, but people scream if you lower them. This is one reason why inflation of around 2-3 percent is generally seen by economists as a good thing – it allows you to lower things like salaries by stealth, so people don’t notice they are being paid less than they once were. Korea’s inflation since 2007 has averaged around 3% – meaning that a salary of ₩2.1 million in 2007 would be the equivalent of around ₩2.6 million today.
What’s the conclusion of all this? As far as I can see, it is exactly what an economist would expect to see – not jobs becoming crazily competitive, but a shifting balance caused primarily by unemployment rates in home countries and the number of available public school jobs in Korea, with an equilibrium being found in salaries but with a certain stickiness caused by the difficulty of lowering wages, resulting in a (probably mild) increase in competitiveness.
I realise that this is all speculative, but in the absence of figures on what percentage of applicants are being accepted into these programs, I think this is the best I can do. If anyone knows of any more relevant data (or has a different interpretation of the data here), then please let me know. Also, I know economics is a topic many people find boring. I find it interesting, and it seemed to me the best way to look at this question – but it’s not something I’ve ever studied in a formal way, so if I’ve screwed something up, please let me know that as well.
This also concurs with what I have seen in those Facebook groups of people applying to get into EPIK and TaLK – I see far more posts of the “Yay, I got in! Can’t wait to meet you all!” type than of the “I was rejected, what to do” type.**Of course, this may just be a biased sample – perhaps the people who post in those forums are more likely to put effort into their applications, or perhaps people are more likely to crow about success than complain about failure.
Final conclusion – jobs in public schools might be somewhat more competitive than they once were, but I think the impression of them being extremely competitive is probably overstated. As far as I can tell, if you are presentable, don’t bomb your interview, and follow all the recommendations in my guide to teaching English in Korea, your chances are still pretty good.
However, I wouldn’t expect the pay scale to go up anytime soon…
Finally, a note about hagwons. When people talk about Korean teaching positions becoming more competitive, they rarely mention hagwons. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any reason why hagwon positions should have become more competitive, and eslcafe.com still features daily posts from dodgy recruiters with headlines like “Hundreds of positions available!!! Just tell us what you want!!!” As far as I can tell, if you’re not choosy about location, hagwon jobs are still available for any bum with a Bachelor’s degree who can stumble off a plane. (Yeah, I know I’m too harsh about hagwon jobs…)