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Tech careers in Korea show mixed signals

Posted: 01 Oct 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:salaries? survey? korea? electrical engineers? soc?

What a difference a short span of time makes! Going into the last year, layoffs were rampant, careers were perilous and compensations were in austerity mode. Fast forward 2003, analysts are united in saying that Asia's high-tech industry has already gathered steam for its recovery.

Everyone should be beyond the worry stage. But according to this year's survey, the economic slump had left South Korea with a mixed population of mostly skeptics and only a few optimists. The wary ones have warned others to stay away from the engineering sector for the next two to three years. Those who rejoiced with the upturn, meanwhile, have predicted which segments will soar higher in the coming months. But they have also confirmed that engineering has, in a big way, lost its glimmer.

South Korea's 2003 job market for the engineering sector is more depressed than the previous year due to factors like the Iraq war, SARS and the North Korean nuclear issue, comments Unicosearch's vice president Sharon Park. It was particularly worse during the period from December last year to February this year. The economic slump is spreading from consumer products toward financial and IT sectors.

But not all was doom and gloom. There was still salary increase, though minimal, reported in the engineering sector.

Rate and ratio

Woo Jeong-Im, R&D manager of Bellwave, said they had around 10 percent salary increase this year. Also, "the sectors with the highest salary raise to as much as 50 percent were in mobile phones and SoCs," said Kim Su-Hyun, senior engineer of Telecommunication R&D Center, Samsung Electronics. "This trend will continue for the next three to five years."

Yoon In-Ho, senior research engineer of Digital Media Research Lab, LG Electronics Inc. concurred that R&D jobs seem to have the highest pay.

Marine Cho, head of research team at P&E Consulting Inc., explained that the engineering position most likely to have a strong demand during the latter half of 2003 through 2004 will be mid-level managers with practical knowledge and experience, whom companies can actually use in their R&D activities. The in-demand segments will be wired and wireless communication, mobile and game-related industries.

Salary should reflect performance. "But in Korea, salary still increases in proportion to the time you stayed in a company, though incentive is based more on performance," said Woo. Salary-increase ratio gets higher as one's time in a company increases, and the salary gap becomes minimal in the end.

Samsung's Kim, however, thinks that the days when salaries increased in proportion to one's tenure in the company are long gone. "Experienced or capable engineers are treated cordially, and it shows in their salaries." Nevertheless, Kim is dissatisfied with his current annual salary, saying, "it's true that the engineer's salary is higher than that of a general clerk, but considering those graduates of economics and commerce, law and medical school, the compensation for Korea's engineers is relatively not good enough."

Growing resentment

Undeniably, the troublesome high-tech sector placed engineering in the back seat among career choices. LG's Yoon thinks the reason for the recent trends of avoiding a career in engineering is because of its relatively short-lived success. Engineering jobs have a limited time period for accelerating one's career.

Unicosearch's Park emphasized the need to transform a career in engineering no later than age 40. She pointed out that "there are many engineers in Korea who have been developing their technical careers, but those with enough management and marketing skills are rare." It is important to become an expert in a particular field. However, one must face the reality that it is almost impossible to remain in the technology development area for too long.

Moreover, companies generally give too much workload to engineers. The survivors of mass layoffs may have to work more hours to make up for having fewer colleagues to help finish projects on time.

This trend resulted to less freelance work. Doing freelance work on a project basis could help increase income greatly. But it's not easy to do it openly. "On top of that, most engineers work overnight so it's really hard to find time for moonlighting," said Woo. Samsung's Kim concurs, saying "I've never seen any of my colleagues working as freelancer in his spare time. With all those company work, it's unthinkable to do freelance work."

Look before you leap

As an aftermath of the IMF foreign exchange crisis, most local companies did restructuring and overall, engineers got feverish interest in overseas jobs, Park said. "But these days, there's more desire for emigration than working overseas. And most of the engineers who'd like to work overseas are concerned more with income than career. They want to double or triple their current salaries."

Kim has a different opinion. "The number of engineers wanting to work overseas has significantly reduced during the period 2002 to 2003." Rather, he explained, current instability of the global economic situation has increased the number of overseas engineers who want to come back to South Korea.

Companies, on the other hand, are extending all efforts to keep its flock intact. Besides incentives provided based on quarterly performance and holding company shares, Bellwave's benefits include housing fund loan, condominium usage, maternity leave and scholarships grants for the employees' children. Samsung, on the other hand, supports scholarships, medical insurance, transportation allowance and usage of health and resort facilities.

But whether these kinds of benefits are appreciated depends on the employee's age and individual situation. For example, scholarship for children is useless for singles, and scholarship for the staff is often no big deal for someone who already has master's or Ph.D.

By and large, the high-tech scenario is far from getting back its old glamorous image. But South Korea, much like its neighboring Asian countries, has already taken steps to fuel the glimmer that once has been in the industry.

It is understandable that engineers are unhappy with their sluggish salary growth. But Asians should not forget, however, that the lower-pay scale is what draws multinational companies to this side of the world.

- Denice Obina

With reports from Marine Cho, Ju-Yeun Lee, Yoon-Ju Joh and Kwon Yong-Wook

Electronic Engineering Times - Asia

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