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Updated: 2018.9.27 05:17
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Why They are Leaving
[ Issue 152 Page 13 ] Wednesday, March 29, 2017, 23:12:22 Hyunseung Hwang Staff Reporter aguno@kaist.ac.kr

Every spring, the campus gets crowded with new students. The freshmen explore buildings and cafeterias that they will be using for the next four years while the student clubs are passionate about recruiting new members. The freshmen remind me of the fact that there are just as many graduates who leave the school to continue their path as engineers or move to a different field. A friend of mine who majored in electrical engineering recently graduated Summa Cum Laude. Despite his exceptional talent, he decided to transfer to medical school instead of pursuing his career as an engineer. To most Koreans, such a decision is nothing new. Registration rates of top engineering schools have never been over 90 percent, as most students choose to go to any medical school in the country over any engineering schools. With the ever growing demand of engineers that the media talks about all the time, such a social norm seems quite unusual. On top of the unpopularity of engineering over medical schools, Korea is suffering from a brain drain of engineers, losing top-end engineers overseas.

By placing all the research facilities in areas far away from Seoul, politicians have managed to discourage the growth of science and technology by locating the research facilities and factories in the swing state of Daejeon. The idea of developing a research-centered state outside of Seoul to alleviate the disparity within the country is great. The reality is that Seoul is still preferred for its residential areas over Daejeon. Engineers have lost the opportunity to acquire jobs near Seoul. The cultural aspect also plays a key role. Engineering is categorized as a blue-collar job. Unfortunately, a vast majority of Koreans view blue-collar jobs to be inferior to white-collar jobs due to salaries, working conditions, and social status. As a result, the few who excel in their areas aim for studying and acquiring a job abroad if possible. The probability for engineers to succeed through startups in Korea is exceptionally low compared to that in China. Few startups succeed, and those that do tend to be absorbed by larger companies. According to Forbes, 23 out of 30 top billionaires have inherited their assets while 29 out of 30 billionaires in China have earned their way to the top through startups. Most engineers’ careers thus becomes tied with the performance of a handful of large companies. Research findings increase and the media talks about the importance of engineering for future jobs but not many actually talk about the potential solution to the problems.

The first step the government can easily take without a hefty investment is to move the research facilities in areas that are at most an hour away from Seoul. This should be easy, because unlike factories, research areas only require a small amount of space. Engineers can then have a greater pool of selection for residency. The anti- immigration sentiment around the globe should not be a threat but a fantastic opportunity to create a momentum to minimize the brain drain of engineers. As the new president of the United States, Donald Trump is currently enforcing anti-immigration laws. It has become not only difficult for engineers to leave Korea but easier for experts to return to the country. Opening job opportunities for those considering returning to Korea by increasing the student-to-professor ratio in colleges would also alleviate the class enrollment stress that the students go through every year. Instead of taking advantage of the increasing supply of engineers, companies and the government should invest in creating an engineer- friendly culture and aim for a long term development. Creating a startup-friendly-country is another essential role of the government. Currently, the dominant companies are required to create immediate profit due to the stockholders’ demands. As a result, those companies become short-sighted and hesitant on spending money on investments that are risky. Increasing regulations on large companies attempting to steal ideas from startups is crucial. For startups to be as competent as the large dominating companies, copyright should protect startups to a level of monopolies. Otherwise, it is highly likely that the startups will be absorbed by a larger company and thus lose their flexibility.

Those who decide to take a different path should not be criticized for being morally wrong but rather praised. The time and effort they invested in have finally paid out. The society making such choices the “better” choice should be condemned instead.

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