Grass Greener in South Korea for Korean Americans

Grass Greener in South Korea for Korean Americans

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A growing number of first- and second-generation Korean Americans with experience in environmental fields are being lured back to South Korea, where the government is spearheading a campaign to promote the nation’s renewable energy and environment sectors. Driven in part by the ongoing economic recession and high unemployment in the United States, these highly educated individuals with environmental expertise are finding new opportunities in Korea's booming green economy.

Alexander Park, a second-generation Korean American who graduated with a degree in environmental engineering from the University of California- San Diego in 2007, spent two years working for a local firm where he gained notice for helping to devise ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. He now works for Seoul-based Eco Frontier, where he says he enjoys a higher salary with increased benefits.

Still, Park and others like him say that despite the benefits, adjusting to life in Korea has not been without challenges. Among his co-workers, Park became known as “the foreigner” for his inability to adjust to traditional etiquette, including bowing to fellow employees. He adds that drafting proposals or even simple emails in Korean remains “extremely hard.”

Peter Yoo with Los Angeles-based JC Consulting, which works closely with major conglomerates in Korea in locating and hiring promising talent, says that despite the recession, “countries in East Asia have shown substantial growth” and demand for skilled workers in environment-related industries there is “booming.”

He adds that conglomerates like Samsung and LG, which now dominate the global semiconductor and mobile phone industries, are actively seeking fluent English speakers with overseas experience in the environmental and renewable energy sectors.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, once hailed by TIME magazine as a “hero of the environment” for his work as mayor of Seoul in transforming a long polluted creek in the city’s downtown area into a clear stream in a sprawling oasis of greenery, unveiled a five-year $38 billion (USD) plan last year aimed at promoting “low-carbon green growth.”

The South Korean government is now spending some 2 percent of the nation’s GDP on its green agenda, creating jobs that appear ever more attractive to Koreans in the United States, as the country faces its worst job crisis in decades with continued hiring freezes and layoffs.

Hee-sung Yoon earned a master's degree in material science and engineering at Texas State University before signing on to work for an environmental firm in Seoul. Like Park, he says he struggles with some of the cultural differences, including promotions based on seniority rather than achievement. Both he and Park, however, are working to integrate more fully into corporate culture in Korea, where they say their future prospects appear to be bright.