Tuesday 2 December 2014

Is Korea Still a Good Place to Teach English In?

Updated 17 February 2016

Things change a lot in Korea, but is it still as good as it used to be or has the bubble burst?  

Gone are the days where you could send your CV off on Monday and be on the plane on Friday. Nowadays, you'll need your degree legalised at the Korean embassy in the case of Canadians or apostillised for most other nationalities as well as a legalised and apostillised criminal background check before you go. If you're lucky you'll get all your paperwork in a month, but more and more recruiters are saying it usually takes up to three months.

Exchange Rates
Back in the 90s, teachers could save money pretty easily. While they were only getting around 1.5 mil won a month, the exchange rate was pretty good and the cost of living certainly isn't what it is now. Take a look at the chart below to see what 1.5 mil won was. Oanda was used for the exchange rates and I used June 30th of each year. Remember that the IMF crisis happened in July 1997.

1.5 mil won1997199920072014
Canadian dollars2400195016501542
American dollars1650135016501357
British pounds1050750750864

It's a bit depressing when you look at this chart. 1.5 mil on was worth a lot  back in 1997.

Exchange rates are one thing, now let's take a look at salaries. In 1999, most hagwons would give you 1.5 mil won. In 2014 it's about 2.3 mil. Salaries have gone up, which is a good thing, but so has the cost of living. Schools are also demanding more than before with many requiring a BA, TEFL cert, and teaching experience. It's good that they're requiring teachers to up their qualifications, but salaries should also increase proportionally. Simply put salaries are not keeping up with the cost of living and the required qualifications that schools are asking for.

They've remained about the same, which is one reason why Korea still has a large influx of teachers. You'll usually get . . .
  • Free furnished housing or a housing allowance
  • Flights
  • Pension (worth about one month's salary). There are exceptions, Kiwis won't get anything until they're 65. South Africans don't pay into the pension scheme.
  • Insurance
  • Severance (one month's bonus upon completion of your contract
  • Lunch (if you're at a public school) 
  • Two weeks paid vacation
  • Decent work schedule
  • Low taxes (about 5%)
Raising Competition
The bad news is that since Korea's pretty easy to get a job in and seen as the best place for new teachers to save money coupled with the horrible economy which means people can't get jobs back home, more and more teachers are coming to Korea. This means that it's an employers' market and their standards have raised.

At the beginning of this article you saw how teachers now need to jump through hoops to get their degrees legalised at the embassy or apostillised, then get a criminal background check, and finally have that legalised and apostillised. When I first came to Korea in 2007, none of that was required. A couple years later, they started asking for the degree, and then a national criminal background check, legalised / apostillised as well.

Keep in mind that these are the minimum requirements. Since there are so many teachers to choose from, now employers can easily ask for TEFL certs or masters degrees. And even then they'll still have a large pool of applicants they can choose from. They're trying to get the most qualified teacher for as cheaply as they can.

Cost of Living
It's gone up, there's not really much to say about it. People who have been here for ten years say that it's probably doubled for somethings (like gas) but other things (such as foreign products, some like deodorant didn't even exist) have gotten much, much cheaper. Add to that that now you can buy a lot of products online for a decent price, it's probably a wash.

University Positions
Many people hold "uni gigs" in high regard and while they are often still good, there are good and bad things about working at universities.

First the bad, many places won't provide housing or a housing allowance so it's up to you to come up with key money and rent. Second, if you look at Dave's, salaries are often around 2.1 to 2.5 mil a month, which is similar to what hagwons and public schools pay, but again you don't get the housing.Third, many universities, even top ones, aren't offering what they used to; the salary and benefit packages are getting worse or staying the same. Some examples of places which are offering less are Ewha (less vacation),  Sungkyunkwan University (overtime was cut in half and they require you to work 5 days a week), and Yonsei University in Wonju (more hours with less pay).  Fourth, you're competing with people who are happy to accept what they're offered due to their current job or the economy back home. Lastly, you might not get severance which hagwons and public schools commonly offer.

The good news is that many universities require you to teach less hours than a hagwon; 15 hours seems to be the norm, though I have seen places require 9-21 hours. Secondly, you often have at least one day off a week. Thirdly, while you might have office hours (2 or 3 a week) you don't have to stay in the office all day like you do in a public school so you have more free time. Fourth, there is often overtime. It can vary, I've seen 23,000 to 60,000 an hour. Now keep in mind that's gross, not net. The problem is that sometimes you can work more and be put into a higher tax bracket, so your take-home pay might not be that much more. Lastly, vacations are pretty good. Some places only offer 5 weeks a year, but there are a few that offer 5 months a year. You might have to teach during one of the breaks, but it's often paid so you can double your income for that month. If you want to teach at a university in Korea, I'd definitely recommend Jackie Bolen's book, “How to Get a University Job in South Korea: The English Teaching Job of Your Dreams.” She wrote a couple of guest posts here at TEFL Tips, How to get the university job in Korea that you want and why I love working at a Korean university. She's been in Korea for over a decade and really knows her stuff.

In my opinion, Korea's still a good place for new teachers to go and save money. Jackie Bolen disagrees and you can read her opinion at Teaching in a Korean Universities: Good for the Tong-term? She also wrote another article called Korean University Jobs: The Golden Handcuffs. The wayward waygook also disagrees and writes about Korean TEFL Jobs: Exposed.

If you're Canadian, the exchange rate has really taken a hit and you're making less than teachers were years ago. Americans and Brits have gotten a better deal. However, even if you are Canadian, Korea's probably the only country where new TEFL teachers can save as much as they do and have a good lifestyle.

Your Opinion 
What do you think about TEFLing in Korea?


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