Harvard of Korea Turns Out More Grads Aiming for Hyundai

For generations, a Seoul National University degree typically led to a job in law, the civil service or with a high-paying foreign company. Manufacturers like Hyundai Motor Co. weren’t for the elite.

With Hyundai growing faster than any other global auto brand over the past decade, it’s now attracting graduates from the nation’s top schools. In the most recent study of grads from SNU -- South Korea’s highest-ranked university and sometimes called the country’s Harvard -- more business students in the Class of 2011 said they went to Hyundai Motor than any other employer. Two years earlier, none did.

“I really wanted to work at Hyundai,” said SNU graduate Kim Jung Min, 27, who joined the automaker in 2011. “It just seemed exciting, the place to be.”

Hyundai’s rise has helped make it the country’s eighth-most-desirable employer, and its affiliate Kia Motors Corp. is No. 3, according to a survey by JobKorea, an online recruiter. A decade ago, Hyundai was 21st and Kia didn’t even make the top 50.

More broadly, the growing appeal of the Seoul-based automaker highlights how the chaebol -- family-run industrial groups that dominate the economy -- are shedding a reputation as something akin to military service, where managers scolded and sometimes hit subordinates. A 2011 survey showed 26 percent of college students wanted to work at a chaebol, almost twice those aiming for foreign companies, according to Alba Chunkook Inc., a Korean recruiting firm.

Status Conscious

“When I was graduating, SNU graduates thought places like the Bank of Korea or new high-paying Korean commercial banks were the best places to start a career,” said Heo Pil Seok, an economy major in SNU’s Class of 1989 and now chief executive officer of Midas International Asset Management Ltd. in Seoul. “Hyundai wasn’t on the preferred list.”

Of almost 200 classmates, Heo says he knows of only one who went to the carmaker. At the time, Hyundai Motor was smaller than Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and produced fewer than 600,000 vehicles a year. Today, Hyundai sells more vehicles than Toyota Motor Corp. in China and India, and its 2012 profit and margins exceeded those of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG.

“Candidates who wouldn’t have considered them in the past would now,” said Anthony Modrich, country manager for Korea at Robert Walters Plc, a London-based recruiter. “People are quite competitive here in terms of status, so that’s a big thing.”

Best Salaries

The company also pays well, with salaries last year averaging 94 million won ($87,000). That’s 35 percent higher than at Samsung Electronics Co., the nation’s biggest company -- and No. 1 on the JobKorea survey -- which generated 74 percent more profit per worker than Hyundai Motor. Hyundai and Kia also pay their new hires the most, more than 56 million won on average in 2012, according to online recruiter CareerNet.

“More and more students are choosing Korean conglomerates for practical reasons,” said Jung Jae Kwang, 25, who joined Hyundai Motor’s finance team this year after graduating from Yonsei University, another top Korean school. For Jung, those include the potential for travel, good job security and a generous salary.

While Hyundai isn’t complaining about the growing interest from students at top schools, the company says it is broadening its recruiting efforts to find workers with less conventional backgrounds.

Scouring Campuses

“We used to just recruit a lot of people at once and develop them later instead of hiring them based on job requirements,” said Chang Haelim, Hyundai Motor’s human resources team leader. “We realized we couldn’t effectively hire the people we wanted.”

That means looking beyond grades and test scores by adding weight to referrals from professors and by scouting for potential hires instead of simply waiting for recent graduates to knock on the door, Chang said.

Kim Wan Kyu, 30, an off-road-car enthusiast brought in as an intern in January, met Hyundai recruiters when they visited his school. Kim says his friends doubted he’d get hired by a top employer like Hyundai because he went to a second-tier school and he’s older than most recent grads.

“Most of the people around me said I wouldn’t get the job,” Kim said. “They told me you’ll get cut off because of your age, because of your school.”

As more Korean companies become global brands, their appeal to graduates of both the nation’s top schools and less-elite institutions will surely strengthen, said Jasper Kim, an international studies professor at Ewha University in Seoul. The key is what Kim calls “the SNS trifecta” of stability, nationalism, and social status.

There’s “a unique sense here in Korea that working for a large Korean firm is not just valuable for the job seeker, but also good for the country itself,” Kim said in an e-mail. “This SNS trifecta resonates not only with the individual job seeker, but also with the individual’s collective networks -- from family to friends and even one’s foes.”

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