Teaching in Korea is not the same. Times are a-changing.
For those in the business of teaching English abroad, it’s no secret that the industry is shrinking.
The demand for English-speakers is on the decline across almost all of the major powerhouse nations responsible for the boom in the past generation.
Japan led the way initially, seeking to educate their youth in the world’s most common tongue. In what they believed to be the most efficient way, they begun shipping native English-speakers in to teach at their schools, sticking white guys and gals in classrooms all around the country and paying them handsomely for relatively little.
Across the water, teaching in Korea followed suit and began to truly flourish in the early 2000s, just as Japan’s booming ESL industry slowed.
Many of their Asian neighbors copied and as a result, the past twenty years have served up a wealth of opportunity for anybody with a degree and the ability to work with children.
However, what goes up, must come down.
Change has been afoot for several years, which leads many to wonder just how long is left to live the dream of teaching in Korea?
The 1990s were the golden years of teaching English abroad. Relaxed laws and visas enabled backpackers to dive head first into a profession they were neither qualified for nor versed in.
And yet, in true Trump-esque fashion, this proved no barrier to them commanding a sizable wage and forging a prosperous career as a respected pillar of the community, despite the fact that they didn’t have a clue what was going on most of the time.
The Asian tiger nations of China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea became the promised land for thousands of westerners since. Every man and woman with an ability to operate their native tongue and who preferably could smile at a mirror without it cracking was in with a shot.
Many made the countries their new homes, arriving fresh out of college to tread footsteps in lands wildly unknown.
Life outside the box was good to most and great to many.
The ex-pat community surged in all of these countries and across the world as the demand for English speakers skyrocketed. Broke students from the USA and Canada were paying off their student loans within a few years of teaching English in Korea, while South Africans lived the Life of Riley compared to the one they may have been accustomed to on the wages in their home economy.
But in recent years, the numbers continue to nosedive.
Foreign teachers, known as waygooks (외국), continue to come here, but it seems Korea is working her way towards a future without native English teachers.
There are less job opportunities for people wanting to teach in Korea now.
When I applied to EPIK in mid-2015, several articles at the time pointed towards the sharp drop in available places on the program. Some 400 new recruits at my orientation paled in comparison to previous intakes since the turn of the millennium.
I was one of many people currently teaching in Korea who interviewed with EPIK for a transfer to Seoul last summer (August 2016). Like the rest, I received the abrupt news that EPIK had made changes to the requirements.
Those who wanted to transfer to Seoul in August faced stipulations, which rendered it almost impossible to move. Transfer applicants faced losing out on some benefits of completing their first year with EPIK.
Eventually, the powers-that-be simply knocked the whole idea on the head. Everyone who harbored hopes of moving to Seoul received the bad news that their application was denied.
Getting a teaching job in Seoul is not easy now.
The capital – the most affluent and cosmopolitan area in the country – had spoken; no more foreign teachers were needed right now.
Apparently February applications to Seoul are still possible, nonetheless, this was a major change.
It followed hot on the heels of the government’s move to downsize jobs in middle schools and high schools.
The thinning of the herd is in full-swing.
Since 2011 the government has slashed jobs by over 40% with statistics from the Ministry of Education indicating a drop from close to 9,000 foreign teachers teaching in Korea down to less than 5,000.
Personally, I applied to Korea because of the fantastic benefits and government security that the English Program in Korea offered.
The relatively straightforward process with EPIK guarantees a job and an apartment before you leave your own country.
It also promises cover for flights in and out of the country. It was a no-brainer.
There is no doubt about it, Korea truly is the best option for anybody wanting to try teaching English abroad for the first time.
However, with the changing landscape so evident, it’s not the only option.
With the golden days gone in Japan and Korea far from what it once was, people are beginning to look elsewhere.
The beautiful tropical locations of Vietnam and Taiwan are on the rise. They promise lucrative opportunities with an adventurous lifestyle in an environment arguably much more exciting and visually engaging that the homogeneous, conservative Korea.
Unfortunately, they both lack a program like EPIK. Indeed, the lack of a real support system that can compete with Korea’s recruitment process is a turn-off for many.
There is a butt-load of work to get set up in those two countries. Many newcomers will endure several weeks or even months of running around on the ground, depending on what time of year they arrive.
Stressful days spent frantically networking with settled ex-pats and undertaking interviews, demo classes and various meetings to secure jobs, apartments and official documentation can tarnish the initial experience in such beautiful and promising lands.
It is no surprise many prospects are daunted by the challenge. But that is the price to pay for what is surely an incredible lifestyle in such beautiful locations.
China is crying out for teachers. I personally had four offers to consider after successful Skype interviews.
I was close to moving before I being swayed towards EPIK.
Ultimately, my research into China’s climate and pollution issues turned me off. I had no desire to be coughing my lungs up on the street everyday, thanks very much.
However, there is undeniable allure towards the rich culture and history, the great food and ancient language. English teachers will flock there for years to come, braving the alien atmosphere that chokes Beijing and many other cities to maximize the potential of the world’s rising superpower.
Hong Kong continues to grow and across the water is the burgeoning city of Shenzhen. They both promise cleaner air and Shenzhen is becoming ever-more popular. This is largely thanks to the beautiful architecture in a slick, modern city that bedazzles newcomers with the low cost of living and friendly nature of its citizens.
The middle eastern nations of Kuwait, UAE and Saudi Arabia promise huge tax-free salaries and great bonuses although the lifestyle is not for everyone.
But if the ESL industry in Korea is truly on the road out, such options as these may well begin to entice more people to dodge Korea and chase treasures in the desert instead.
Is the ESL industry of Korea really failing?
As recently as January this year, a story of private academies (hagwons) closing up shop and leaving all their employees without jobs or homes rocked a Facebook group. Even veteran ex-pats were dropped on their ass in the cold at a moments notice.
These hagwon horror tales are a dime-a-dozen across the internet and frighten many prospects. Other people will say a lot of it is rumor but make no mistake, these things still happen at hagwons and show little sign of going away as Korea pushes forward with it’s phasing out process.
Other teachers get fired in the final days of their contracts. They then face arduous legal battles to get outstanding wages and bonuses their ruthless employers withhold.
Also, recent changes to EPIK regulations announced in February 2017 mean many foreigners face a move to a new school at the end of their current contract. It would seem many Korean schools don’t wish to have the same foreign teacher on their books for more than two consecutive years.
If the school has a Korean English language teacher on their staff, there’s a fairly good chance of getting the heave-ho at the end of your contract. This affected many of my friends, even at rural schools.
Bit by bit, the window of opportunity is closing. Korea’s day as the kingpin of the ESL world is drawing to a close.
It’s becoming hard to escape that truth. Just like Japan before, the best days are in the past.
For many foreigners, dabbling in the ESL world for just a few years is still a very viable option here in South Korea.
However, a long-term stay teaching in Korea is beginning to look less likely for newcomers.
That’s unless they hope to put down roots with a local and venture into business. My friend Dave has done just that.
Dave arrived at the tail-end of the golden years in 2009. After almost a decade in the country, Dave and his wife saw the vast changes in the ESL landscape. Considering leaving it all behind, Dave and his wife realized continuing as contracted public school teachers was not the best long-term plan.
Like some of their friends, fellow ex-pats and veterans from the 2000s scene, they recognized the potential for a career by opening their own hagwon.
This has given them the freedom to choose their own schedule and grow the business on their terms. What a dream!
For others, a teaching post at a university is the holy grail.
Short work weeks of as little as 12 hours are common. Ridonkulous vacation periods of three or four months is not unheard of. Often these teachers will travel between semesters, living in some cheap utopia in South East Asia. There they work on other ventures before returning for those short work weeks of chatting to high-level young adults.
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?
But, like anything worth having, it’s not easy to get. A job at university is beyond many people armed with a major and a TEFL certificate. Employers demand a Masters degree or a teaching licence in most cases as well as credible experience.
The government are continuing to close the net and even these opportunities are becoming harder to come by. Soon, the short-term option of teaching in Korea may become a thing of the past altogether.