Graduates put degrees aside for migrant work overseas

By Quynh Nguyen   May 23, 2023 | 05:36 am PT
Le Thu was hardly getting by with her teacher’s income of VND7 million ($298) per month, so she decided to seek employment abroad instead.

When she started working, the now 32-year-old woman from Nghe An thought her salary as a teacher was "fine" even though it wasn’t high.

But after she got married and gave birth, unprecedented costs appeared. Things got even harder after Thu and her husband took out a mortgage from the bank to buy a new house. Their accumulated income, which was around VND15 million, was not even enough for their monthly living costs.

At the start of this year, Thu applied for work in Japan. Her parents and parents-in-law were initially against the idea, however, when Thu persuaded them that her family’s financial situation could get even worse with a second child, they agreed.

Ngoc Lien, 25, from Bac Giang Province, has just completed her documents to apply to work in Taiwan. She is expected to be a food processor for a monthly salary equivalent to VND30 million. Lien graduated from a university in Hanoi and majored in English. Over the past three years since graduation, she hasn’t been able to find a job that aligned with her university major, and a satisfactory paycheck has also eluded her.

Lien thought about starting her life over in a new country to hopefully save some money working abroad. She and her parents borrowed around VND100 million from their relatives and promised to pay them back after one year.

"I hope that after working in Taiwan for three years, I can return to Vietnam and give my parents some money. I promised myself that I would improve my language ability and skills in order to get a job at a multinational company after coming back to Vietnam," she said.

Phuong Nhi, a philosophy degree holder from Son La, has also decided to go to South Korea for work. The 23-year-old girl said she had sent applications to many companies, only to get turned down. To pay her bills, she worked as a factory worker at the Dong Van industrial area in Ha Nam for a salary of VND7 million a month.

"I have several friends who are also working as factory workers [in foreign countries], and they often get paid around VND30 million a month. Many of them even sent money to their parents to purchase land and houses," Nhi said.

She is expected to take an exam at the end of this month to qualify for work in Korea.

10 years ago, Thuy Ha quit her job at a bank to go work in Taiwan. Photo courtesy of Ha

10 years ago, Thuy Ha quit her job at a bank to go work in Taiwan. Photo courtesy of Ha

"At least 10% of those who are applying for an E9 visa [for labor] are university and equivalent graduates," said Nguyen Quynh Trang, director of a Hanoi-based company that assists laborers applying to work in Taiwan and Japan.

There has been no official research, but Trang said that she has observed that the number of university graduates applying to work abroad has surged over the past two years.

"Many people tend to hide the fact that they are university graduates in fear of prejudice or of being turned down by employers that believe educated people can’t endure pressure," Trang said.

Tran Phuong Loan has 14 years of experience teaching Korean to those who plan to work abroad. When asked about the proportion of university graduate applicants seeking work abroad, she also estimated it to be around 10%.

"There are even dual-degree holders, doctors, and teachers who apply to work abroad," she said.

In a survey by VnExpress that attracted around 300 respondents this month, 50% answered "Yes" to the question "Would you go to South Korea to work if possible?"

Loan attributed the popularity of working abroad to four reasons. First, the cost is low and the application process is simple. Second, people can earn VND40-50 million a month, or even higher if they are hardworking. Third, ever since the pandemic came under control, many countries have been in need of immigrant workers. Last, the unemployment rate is rising in Vietnam.

As reported by the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, the unemployment rate rose in the last quarter of 2022. The number of unemployed people of working age was 1.08 million, which was higher than that in Q3.

Many countries are in need of immigrant workers after the pandemic. For instance, the Ministry of Labor and Employment in South Korea has announced a plan to seek 110,000 foreign workers as a consequence of the country’s demographic problem. Still, business insiders said that such a number could still only satisfy about 20% of real-life demand.

As a result of this policy, the number of people signing up for Loan’s Korean course has increased two to three times. Earlier this month, as many as 23,500 people registered for a test, conducted under the Employment Permit System (EPS), to recruit laborers to work in South Korea, which was the highest number in 10 years.

A 38-year-old man from Hung Yen studies Korean before attending the EPS test in May 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

A 38-year-old man from the northern province of Hung Yen studies Korean before attending the EPS test in May 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Vu Quang Thanh, vice president of the Hanoi Center for Employment Service, said there were myriad reasons for university degree holders to apply to work abroad. While many are motivated by the idea of changing their environment, most are motivated by financial reasons.

"Working abroad is a good idea if you want to earn a higher income," he said.

Thanh believes that high-skilled workers can definitely find foreign companies offering good benefits. However, other less competent workers could find it harder to earn competitive salaries, he added.

In order to prevent skilled workers from relocating to other countries, which may lower domestic productivity, Le Quang Trung, former deputy head of the Department of Employment at the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, said that authorities and companies have to come up with policies and laws that better train, use, and help laborers improve.

He suggested that university graduates generally want to have a job that allows them to have a good working environment and attractive salaries.

"When either of these requirements is not met, it is understandable that they seek other chances," he said. "Meanwhile, companies can save recruitment and training costs if they manage to make their employees loyal."

Young people should also start thinking about the major they want to pursue and their career choices from middle school, in order to not be confused about their desires and strengths after graduation, suggested Trung.

Thanh added that those who are interested in going to work abroad have to think carefully, as not everyone can improve their skills during their time abroad and then find better job opportunities after returning.

"Laborers need to calculate and prepare career-oriented skills in order not to be disappointed after coming back," he said.

Quoc Anh, 28, a Ha Nam resident, experienced just this problem.

Five years ago, he graduated from a university in Hanoi. His major was economics. He chose to immediately go to South Korea for work because he wanted to make money quickly. After some time, he returned to Vietnam with a savings of VND200 million.

Being confident with his university and his experiences working for companies in South Korea, he has always asked the multinational companies he applied to for competitive salaries and high-ranking positions. He has been turned down many times, due to his lack of realistic experiences and basic Korean-language skills. One year has passed since he returned to Vietnam, and he is still unemployed. And he has already used up almost all of his savings.

"I’m still confused about my career path. I plan to go work abroad again, and I hope the situation will be better this time," Quoc Anh said with a sigh.

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