Challenges to the Korean ESL industry & Beyond

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These days it may well seem that the hits just keep on coming for the Korean ESL industry. While there are a lot of teachers that have been here a long time and witnessed various potential threats come and go. This time it seems a little different. With AI rising and becoming ever better and more efficient than before, it will undoubtedly impact Korean ESL teachers and students in various ways. Recently the Korea Times ran an article saying that the After School Program was essentially being axed and that 7,000 jobs would be lost in the Korean ESL market.

This in itself will be painful for some that will have to struggle to get work in a private institute / hagwon.

But this type of change has been on the cards for a while. Back in August Daegu superintendent of Education stated that English should be downgraded and made an optional subject. It looks like this ending of the after school program is the first swipe at the crown that English has been wearing for so long. The Korean ESL market has grown and grown over the years, with ESL being mandatory for university entrance exams, job interviews for big companies and to bolster social status.

But is the bloom off the rose for the Korean ESL industry?

Die-hard lifers that have seen it all may well say no, but one thing is for certain, good jobs and easy money isn’t what it used to be. More and more companies big and small in the Korean ESL industry are offering less of what used to be standard benefits. Housing allowances and airfare are two areas where the generosity is not what it used to be, with some employers offering no flights or only a flight home.

Does this mean that the Korean ESL industry is doomed? Well not really, at least not yet. But it does point out that now more than ever before it is a buyers market for hagwons, schools and universities. Which to be honest is not a bad thing.

Korea has become cool, and exotic. It has burst into the international travel scene and has certainly gotten a lot more attention than just five years ago. Gangnam style, K-pop, food, Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Kim Jong Un, Park Geun Hye and even Gordon F)&$ing Ramsay have added to the appeal for young people to come and live, work and travel the country.

But there are other perhaps more insidious threats that are beginning to rear their heads.

Google Pixel Buds. the bluetooth headphones were released several weeks ago. They boast the ability to wirelessly translate over 40 languages in real time. Korean and English being two of those languages. While perhaps not perfect, it is a giant leap forward that it seems the Korean ESL industry wishes to ignore. Something that for as little as $160 could help people communicate in other languages one would assume would be front page news. However, there hasn’t been a whisper of it in the Korean press. Not that I have seen anyway.

Most business men I teach are fine with talking, their problem is accurately responding to the questions asked in real time. The Pixel Buds change that. This would mean that for many that study English to improve their conversation skills past a certain level would not need to take private classes.

Not only that but it further pushes at the dominance of English and the need for the Korean ESL industry to be such an essential and expensive part of Korean life. With household debt soaring, and jobs disappearing thanks to AI, is the Korean ESL industry going to be hit hard and if so how hard?

The answer of course is who knows.

But AI is coming and Koreans love their tech! A report by Mckinsey estimates by 2030 over 800 million jobs world wide will have disappeared. Is teaching English going to be one of the jobs that will be replaced?

Will the industry crash and burn tomorrow? Definitely not. But change is certainly in the air!

For a book on potential problems the ESL industry may face, and how to better position yourself check this out.

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