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Learning to improve

A strong focus on education helped South Korea build an advanced economy, but new challenges require new approaches to learning and training.

A researcher checks 'Method-2', a manned biped walking robot, during a demonstration in Gunpo, South Korea. (Photo: Reuters)

What we teach our children will affect the way our economy develops and even what we trade in the future. Education is how South Korea managed to rise from the ashes of the Korean War to become Asia's fourth largest economy and a high-tech industrialised nation.

In 1960, seven years after the end of the conflict on the Korean peninsula, South Korea's GDP per capita was US$158 per head. The country joined the trillion-dollar club of world economies in 2004 and according to the World Bank, GDP per capita was $27,500 last year.

"In 1990 when I entered the classroom to teach graduate students at Michigan State University in the United States, one of my students asked me, 'Professor, what did you do during the Korean War?' So I said, 'I was born'," recalls Prof Dr Dae-bong Kwon from Korea University and former president of Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training (Krivet).

"The week after I brought a video that showed the current state of the (South) Korean economy. The student was so amazed and he asked, 'What was the secret to the Korean economic transition?', and I said, education," he told participants at the Trade and Development Regional Forum 2017, arranged by the International Institute for Trade and Development (ITD) in Bangkok last month.

South Korea, he said, switched from a labour-intensive economy between 1960 and 1975, because the attempt to expand its heavy chemical industry had led to a labour shortage. The emphasis shifted to the development of a quality workforce, while the 1997 Asian financial crisis provided another catalyst to move away from quantitative expansion to qualitative deepening.

Now South Korea, and the rest of the world, is going through another transition to Industry 4.0, which will require a new kind of workforce. Dr Kwon calls it "a shift in workforce structure caused by technological advances and industrial evolution".

"We need a new way of education because there are new jobs and new capabilities are required such as curiosity, problem-solving and tolerance. … Nowadays, instead of simple engineers, we also require engineers and technicians with management capabilities," he said.

Human resource development in South Korea from 1970-96 was based mainly on "initial training", he explained, and the target group was school graduates. Key providers were schools and training centres while the areas covered were basic skills.

But after the 1997 crisis the focus was shifted toward retraining instead of initial training, and today the emphasis has shifted again, to "upgrade training". The target group has changed from students to the unemployed, and now to the employed, while the key providers have changed from state- and corporate-led to diverse providers in collaborative partnerships.

"Public-private partnership is now collaborative partnership," said Dr Kwon. While the period after the 1997 crisis was about delivering vocational training and employment search, simple delivery of skills is no longer enough in a new world that emphasies science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-related investment and trade. There also has to be career development.

Dr Kwon, who has advised Samsung and Hyundai Motor on human resource development, notes that many Korean corporations now offer career learning programmes, both non-degree and degree-based. For example, Hyundai Department Store has a logistics non-degree programme while CJ Foods offers a dining services programme.

"Although those programmes are being offered by companies, more than 80% of the tuition fees are subsidised by the government and this is coming from the employment insurance fund," he said.

Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Heavy Industries are also offering university programmes such as semiconductor and marine shipping bachelor courses, and the Korea Development Bank is offering a bachelor's programme in finance.

"Even though companies are offering those programmes for their employees, the Ministry of Education is the one that is granting the bachelor's degrees, so companies are recruiting high school graduates, especially from vocational schools, and they are providing opportunities, not only for working, but also for studying at the same time," he said.

Rolf-Dieter Daniel, president of the European Association for Business and Commerce (EABC), said the European Union could provide Asean countries with soft tools to speed up economic development and one of them is education, especially vocational programmes.

"Education is the most important thing because without education, no one can go toward Industry 4.0. Vocational education is a must, where in Germany we have a private programme to which Asean companies can apply," he said.

Dr Kwon said South Korea in 2010 introduced its version of Germany's Meister vocational high schools to provide a quality workforce to its industries.

"From the beginning, we invited industries to construct a Meister high school curriculum with teachers and this specialised vocational high school, in collaboration with industries, has provided graduates with direct entry into the labour market," he said. "Then they have the opportunity to continue their studies with at higher education institutes [in programmes] offered by the companies themselves."

Meister high schools, according to Dr Kwon, concentrate on educating students with aptitude and ability to nurture their talents in specific fields. South Korea now has more than 40 of the schools.

"By government policy, every month we (Krivet) receive feedback from the Meister high schools and this is a successful case of vocational education policy, where the 2008 employment insurance system and the [introduction of] Meister high schools in 2010 have proved to be working," he added.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea's labour market has been particularly resilient in the wake of the global financial crisis. Unemployment has remained very low at between 3.5% and 4.5% over the past decade and was 4.2% in April this year. Employment, as a share of the population aged 15-74 was 64.7% in the first quarter of 2017, 3.5 percentage points above the OECD average.

However, authorities have struggled to bring down the youth unemployment rate, which stood at 11.2% in April for those aged 15-30. High youth unemployment underscores the urgency of training people for the jobs the new economy needs.

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