Has It Become Harder To Find ESL Jobs Overseas?
It has now been several decades since fresh, young, inexperienced expats with English fluency could head to Asia and land high paying jobs teaching English as a second language (ESL) in countries like South Korea and Japan. While large numbers of individuals still flock to Asia to pursue careers in English education, many of them are finding it harder to find work, especially if they do not have ESL teaching certification, such as ESOL, TESL, TOEFL, TEFL, or a background in education. This is particularly true when seeking jobs in the Middle East where certification and teaching experience are almost always absolute requirements. But is that now the case in South Korea, and are teaching jobs more difficult to find there, in that way that it became challenging to find jobs in Japan after the JET program peaked in the late 1990s? After all, South Korea has always been a popular destination for recent grads from the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, and for several reasons: high wages, good teaching opportunities, and a good lifestyle.
The General Manager of Footprints Recruiting, Dave Harvey, and a few teachers who are either currently in South Korea, or were recently there, shared their thoughts about the ESL market today and reflected on how it has changed.
Anthony Baber, 25, who works for a private school in South Korea, an entity known as a hagwon (학원), began looking for work abroad after he graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English and Literature in 2009. He landed a job at Chungdahm shortly thereafter.
When asked his thoughts about the job market in South Korea and if it had become more difficult to find work, Baber said, “I think the market for hagwon teachers is more saturated than it used to be but there are still jobs available for qualified teachers. But the public school system is phasing out foreign teachers so those opportunities are much fewer.”
Harvey shared similar remarks about the public school system, but added specific details as to why it has become harder to find employment.
“Since 2006 [and] 2007 the public schools in Korea really started hiring a lot of teachers. Some school boards hired as many as 400 to 600 [teachers] a semester . . . After a few years of massive hiring, in 2011 some school boards started cutting their budgets, and foreign teachers were being hired in smaller numbers. Factor in the number of teachers staying on for multiple contracts and a decent lifestyle in Korea, and some school boards were hiring a fraction of what they used to.”
Not only are they hiring fewer teachers, but programs, such as EPIK, are now requiring TEFL certification, an Education or English degree, or at least a year of teaching experience, Harvey said.
“Starting in August 2013, EPIK will no longer accept TESL certifications that do not have an in-class component to them which will further narrow the field of applicants again,” he added.
Monty Ahmad, like Baber, also works for Chungdahm as an elementary school trainer at the company’s Institute of Foreign Language Education. Ahmad, 47, has a Master’s in Childhood Education, and began teaching in South Korea in 2001. Ahmad still argues that there is a demand for teaching.
“The statistics reveal that Korea spends more money per capita on English education than any country in the world, and is ranked below China every year in standardized testing. My point is they will need English teachers for the next 20 years. [The] hurdles are harder, but you can teach with 2 years of college now - so relatively speaking - it's actually easier. For example, the Filipinos and Indonesians who are married to Koreans now teach in public schools at a much lower wage versa those from the selected countries like the U.S., Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and South Africa.”
In many ways, Ahmad’s perspective doesn’t contradict Harvey’s. Competition has obviously changed, and expats from Western countries are competing with teachers from Southeast Asia. Yet, as Ahmad, Baber, and Harvey point out, opportunities for teaching jobs still exist there for expats from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and South Africa.
Mike Barrish, 28, from Marathon Florida first started teaching in Korea in May 2011. Although he is currently in the U.S., he and his girlfriend plan to return soon. Barrish graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 2008, having majored in International Politics and minoring in Middle Eastern History. Not surprisingly, Barrish struggled to find a job in the U.S., as the year of his graduation marked the beginning of an economic crisis as severe as the Great Depression. It is an ongoing crisis of such severity that was and continues to be ruthless when it comes to job prospects for young Americans who are Barrish’s age or slightly older. Moreover, many young Americans have student loans that are a greater burden than previous generations with degrees and loans. Incidentally, outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. has surpassed $1 trillion, and there are few solutions that have been offered by policymakers or leaders in Washington, D.C. Furthermore, this brutal and unforgiving repayment system – it is nearly impossible to discharge loans in bankruptcy and the terms of repayment for private loans are unforgiving – has driven many young people to seek work overseas in order to pay off their debt and live modestly well (read: they aren’t forced to move in with Mom and Dad, work two to three menial jobs, just to stay current on their student loan debt).
Of course, 2008 was also a game changer for the Korean ESL market, as more qualified individuals, such as Barrish, looked there for work. Naturally, with more applications from the U.S. pouring in, competition increased.
Harvey notes that until 2007, “virtually anyone under 45 with a bachelor’s degree could fairly easily get a job at a Korean private language school (hagwon). The jobs were plentiful and the economy in North America wasn’t as bad as it is now.”
Not only has competition increased, but wages have remained stagnant for years. That means the ability to earn the type of salary that teachers had once enjoyed is no longer the case. In fact, Harvey said that he hasn’t seen a wage increase since he first went to Korea in 2002. On top of that, the cost of living has increased in Korea. But it isn’t all negative for recent grads seeking work in the ESL industry there.
“That said, teachers can still afford a very comfortable lifestyle in Korea, and are able to save money, just maybe not as much as in the past,” Harvey noted.
While it may not be as lucrative for individuals from the U.S., and other English speaking countries, to teach in South Korea, many continue to seek work there, particularly recent graduates who face tough job markets at home. If they do land jobs in South Korea, as Harvey mentioned, they can still live well and save, something that is especially important for Americans graduates who struggle with high levels of student loan debt.
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Cryn Johannsen is the founder and executive director of All Education Matters (AEM) which was founded in order to educate the public and elected officials about the ever growing student loan debt crisis.
Johannsen is widely known across the US for her expertise about student loans and as an investigative journalist. Her written articles have been published frequently in USA Today, Moneycrashers.com, Huffington Post, Truthout.org, Hyervocal.com and The Loop 21.
On ESL101.com Johannsen’s feature column is be dedicated to topics that relate to the ESL field, the global economy, and working and living abroad.