As the capital of one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Seoul is a fast-paced, cutting-edge city with a highly desirable working environment. Working in Seoul can be difficult as competition for jobs in the city centre is fierce, but becomes a little less so in some of its outlying suburbs.
Despite occupying less than one percent of the country’s surface area, Seoul generates a huge proportion of the its gross domestic product (GDP).
Job market in Seoul
Many of the core industries in Seoul are concentrated in the manufacturing sector in fields such as information and communications technology, electronics, food and beverage production, and publishing. The city is home to the headquarters of major corporations such as Samsung, LG, the Hyundai Group and Jinro, which produces its own brand of soju, a local drink that has consistently ranked as the highest selling spirit alcohol in the world.
The majority of jobs available to English-speaking foreigners tend to involve either teaching English or working for the US Army. Expats who are interested in non-teaching jobs in South Korea generally need to have postgraduate education and experience in a highly specialised field to be seriously considered. Otherwise, they will be directly competing with the local workforce.
Outside of teaching, most expats with jobs in Seoul work in the service sector and the electronics, automobile, and chemical industries. More often than not, the difference between being employed or not depends on who a candidate knows, just as much as it does on their qualifications and experience.
For those that do find employment, many of the biggest companies in Seoul insist that their managerial staff be able to speak English. As a result, doing business in Seoul is fairly straightforward as the language is less of an impediment. That said, there are certain rules of etiquette and social customs that should be researched before attempting to climb the Korean corporate ladder.
Finding a job in Seoul
Most expats find a job before relocating, as this is often a necessary condition of receiving a work visa and because Korean employers often provide key support, such as helping expats find accommodation.
Many expats find employment through the many job portals available online. The high number of expats wanting to teach in Korea has resulted in a large number of recruitment companies which organise placements on behalf of private schools, of which there are many in Seoul.
Work culture in Seoul
Traditional social practices and etiquette still have an important role in South Korean business. If expatriate businesspeople want to be accepted by their colleagues, they need to display an awareness of these and a willingness to engage in the social codes that are at the foundation of business culture in South Korea.
While South Korea's place in the global business circuit has made changes to the way that business is generally conducted in the country, there is still an elaborate system of hierarchy that imbues business culture that is based on position, age, prestige and, to an extent, gender.
For Koreans, the idea of 'saving face' is less about preserving oneself and more about saving others from embarrassment, especially those of a higher social or professional ranking. For this reason, expats shouldn't expect a direct negative answer from Korean people if they can’t help or don’t know. In doing so, an individual maintains their own honour and dignity.
Koreans need to be able to trust the people they are doing business with and social relationships are directly linked to business success. For this reason, prospective business partners spend a lot of time getting to know each other. Dinner invitations, after dinner drinks and karaoke are also likely to feature at some point and should not be turned down.
Teaching English in Seoul
A steady stream of English-speaking foreigners make their way to the country each year in search of financial, professional and cultural gain. By far the most popular source of income for these expats is teaching English in South Korea.
English teaching jobs have traditionally been fairly easy to obtain for expats from countries such as the UK, the US, Canada and South Africa, as long as they meet a few basic requirements. That said, in recent years the Korean government has been cracking down on the foreigners teaching English illegally or without the proper visa. Competition, especially for placements in schools based in Seoul, has also increased and requirements have become slightly more stringent.
Most expats secure a job in Seoul from overseas before they arrive, and often the employer applies for a work permit on their behalf.