Marcelo Barros is a University of Oregon graduate originally from Brazil. In the U.S., he’s worked for Lucent Technologies and Cisco Systems, among other firms, and as a career coach for international students. Drawing on two decades of experience, Barros recently wrote The International Advantage: Get Noticed. Get Hired!, which gives international students advice on how to navigate the U.S. work visa system and how to find the job they want. Last month, Barros spoke to Vault (via email) about his book, about the advice he gives international students looking to live and work in the U.S., and about the controversial H-1B visa—a hot-button issue discussed in several recent presidential debates.
VAULT: How did you become interested and knowledgeable in the subject of international students looking for jobs in the U.S.?
BARROS: I was raised in beautiful Florianopolis, Brazil. These days it’s a hip well-known tourist destination. I grew up running around the beaches of Floripa (the city’s nickname) and when I wasn’t boogie boarding I was fishing with a cast net. But as cool as the city was, it felt small and at times not that interesting. I started to learn English and, with that, came a strong desire to travel and see the world. I was lucky I got to travel when I was very young.
I left Brazil for the first time on my own at age 14. A few years later I ended up attending the University of Oregon as an undergraduate international student. It was just amazing out there on the West Coast. I finished my MBA at Oregon in 1999 and afterward started my career in telecommunications. I went from being a J-1 visa holder to OPT [Optional Practice Training, where students get to work in the U.S. for a year] to an H-1B visa holder for six years. After that I got my green card, and then finally became a U.S. citizen.
Along the way I worked for big global firms such as Lucent Technologies and Cisco Systems. There were a lot of international workers at these firms at the time. And I was always interested in discussing with them why they thought they were successful in securing jobs. I was very interested in understanding the transition from being an international student to joining the U.S. workforce.
At the time, for my own sake, I wanted to understand why some international students in the U.S. succeed and why others didn’t. I talked to a lot of people and read a lot. Mainly, and perhaps most importantly, I observed what was happening around me. I’ve always tried to get to the heart and mind of Americans so I could better position myself, not only to get an H1-B and stay in this country but also to flourish here.
I guess you can say that despite my techie-looking resume, throughout my years in the U.S., I’ve always been an amateur anthropologist, trying to interpret my new reality—at times through the lens of my new host country, at times through the lens of my birth country, and at times through a combination of both.
Along the way I also got jobs at university career centers and spent a great deal of time working with international jobseekers. But again, perhaps my best learning continues to come from being an active observer of life in U.S. and curious about what it takes to find fulfillment and career success in this country as someone who wasn’t born here.
Even going back to the days when I was student, other international students would ask me, “Marcelo, you seem interested in this stuff. I don’t want to go home after graduation. We’re in the same boat. What should we do?” So in some ways I’ve been trying to answer the question of how international students can increase their chances of finding U.S. employment for about 20 years now.
VAULT: Why did you decide to write The International Advantage?
BARROS: I never in my life thought I’d write a book. The International Advantage Get Noticed. Get Hired! has been out for about nine months now and, to this day, when I see my book, I cannot believe it’s out. It took me about two years to finish writing it. I had a lot of help along the way. Despite my insecurities as a writer, I felt I had a story to tell. I lacked the confidence to put my thoughts on paper, but seemed to have the motivation to try to put something together. I knew I’d connect with the hearts and minds of international students worried about jobs and careers. So I started to socialize the concept of the book with a ton of people: hiring managers, HR professionals from firms such as Johnson & Johnson and Google, academics, international students, and people who have never met an international student in their life. Mainly I tried to explain to people what I thought my motivation was for writing the book. People told me to go for it, and just like any other writer, I put one word down on a piece of paper at a time, and 267 pages later I thought it was time to wrap.
At the moment, there’s a sense of hopelessness among international students seeking jobs in the U.S. Many feel the odds are against them. I don’t feel that way. More than ever many of the U.S. employers I talk to tell me they need the skills and traits international students often have. It’s more than possible to be successful. I think The International Advantage can give career-driven international students job search strategies that fit them and maximize their strengths and talents. And with that I hope they get closer to achieving their job search goals.
VAULT: What are the biggest challenges that international students face when it comes to getting jobs in the U.S.?
BARROS: They face many challenges, some they quickly recognize and some they often don’t. If you’re an F-1 visa holder who wants to work and stay in the U.S. after graduation, you’ll need an H-1B visa, and it’s not easy these days to secure one. Additional challenges, for example, could include lack of a U.S. network to help secure job leads and a lack of a basic understanding of how to function in the U.S. comfortably. U.S. society is sales-driven and that sometimes causes international students to overcompensate and become uncomfortably aggressive when networking and interviewing. And then some international students fall on other spectrum: they’re just too quiet for U.S. standards.
Those are just a few examples. There’s really an array of challenges international students face. Also, it’s tough to figure out the world of work and careers in a new country. There are so many job titles out there. There are so many career possibilities. Work has become so fluid and interdisciplinary. The U.S. economy is very dynamic and offers career and job opportunities that are suited for international students that they sometimes simply don’t know exist.
VAULT: How can international students increase their chances of getting hired by the firm of their choice?
BARROS: Some prestigious, global brand-name firms are open to interviewing and hiring international students. Many have immigrations attorneys on retainer. And due to their global presence and need to attract top talent, many are open to sponsoring. If you’re lucky enough to go to a school that’s considered a core school by a top U.S. firm you’re targeting, you may be in luck, because this firm may come to you, to your campus, to interview prospective hires, and they may be open to talking to international students. If you don’t have the luxury of attending one of these schools, not all hope is lost, but much more work and preparation is needed to develop a contact inside one of these firms who can endorse you as a candidate for a job there. So networking and connecting with people in general becomes key to increase the chance of working for a top global, U.S. firm if you don’t go to a school this firm may normally target.
VAULT: What’s the current state of the H-1B visa program? Is it working? Are companies abusing the visas? Using them fairly?
BARROS: It’s funny how many people there are who knew nothing about the H-1B program years ago and now have heard of it. It’s become kitchen table conversation. Many people now ask me: “Is this what you do, Marcelo? H-1B stuff?”
The fact is U.S. immigration laws are complex, and often if you use common sense to analyze them you don’t get very far. In general terms, when we talk about skilled immigration, conversations often turn to the H1-B program, which was created in 1990 so it’s been around for about 25 years. Essentially, Congress decided that it would be wise to allow U.S. corporations to hire foreign nationals, such as international students, for specialty roles. A job at McDonald’s flipping burgers is not a specialty role, but a job as a software developer, a marketing analyst, or a teacher can be.
So, many employers in the U.S., not just Google and Microsoft, but also schools in Mississippi, for example, have been able to utilize the H1-B program to fill critical job vacancies that might not have been filled had it not been for the program. Silicon Valley would not exist as it does today if was not for the H1-B program. So, in my opinion, we should be very thankful that the H1-B program exists, and we should be looking for ways to make it better for all parties involved.
But then there are some people out there who are against the H1-B program. They say the program takes jobs away from Americans, and they say that the program has allowed U.S. firms to use Indian outsourcing firms to replace U.S. workers with cheaper labor. This has been a hot topic lately. From my perspective, much of this anti-H1-B dialogue is driven by politics, particularly these days, and much of it is not grounded on facts. People have agendas. But numbers don’t lie. We can get very analytical here and get the emotion out of the H1-B debate. We have collected a ton of data over the years around the distribution of H1-B visas. We have access to this data. We know which companies have ended up with H1-B visas, the job titles of those who get H1-B visas, how much money H1-B workers make, etc. So, let’s look at the data responsibly and see the the story it is telling us. And then let’s decide what makes sense going forward.
Do I think the H1-B program is perfect? No. I can think of 100 potential modifications that would strengthen the program for all involved. For starters, on behalf of all the U.S. hiring managers I work with who are struggling to fill certain jobs they have, I believe we must immediately raise the H1-B visa cap. Do I feel that possibly there has been fraud associated with the H1-B program? I’m not sure. What seems like fraud or something illegal to someone who’s an outsider in the world of the H1-B program, in fact might not be.
Let me give you an example. Last year there was a big case that hit the news. Southern California Edison laid off some of their IT staff, and a variety of roles were filled by Infosys and Tata Consulting Services. These are India-based outsourcing firms. And then the workers who got laid off were upset and California politicians got involved. People were saying that Southern California Edison’s actions were illegal and they were going to sue. And then the U.S. Department of Labor got involved to investigate the case, and they concluded there was no wrongdoing.
Politics and personal agendas aside, this is the reality I know: I work with college graduates from a variety of fields. I work primarily with international students but also work with U.S. students. I mean this in a general way: Only a minority of the U.S. student population has the combination of cognitive capability and motivation necessary to excel in demanding technical fields. The percentage of U.S. college graduates ready to take on a job that requires a great dosage of intellectual ability and technical creativity doesn’t meet the needs of U.S. employers who need top hires to fill jobs that require such traits so they can continue to innovate and grow.
Most people just don’t understand the human capital needs of U.S. firms at a deep level. Google and every publicly traded firm in the U.S. are under pressure to grow, innovate, and be profitable. A computer science degree does not automatically mean Google will hire you. Most of us don’t have what it takes to get a job there. So when I think about the H-1B program, I’m not thinking about the international students I work with. What I’m thinking about are the needs of the U.S. enterprise to remain competitive and innovative in a world that’s more borderless than ever and fiercely competitive. So let’s give U.S. employers a chance to sample from a larger group of potential hires. If a U.S. employer finds what it’s looking for in a U.S. college graduate, everything being equal, typically the job will go to the U.S. candidate, unless employers are aware of just how cultural diversity can have a meaningful positive impact in what they do. But the reality is that there’s a labor shortage in the U.S. in several areas.
Compared to many countries around the world, high school in the U.S. is very weak, and when U.S. high school students get to college, professors are trying to teach them what they should have learned their freshman year in high school. In many instances, our international students are able to fill this knowledge gap, and until we solve the K-12 educational crisis in the U.S., we should be thankful we have bright international students in the U.S. who want to get hired and contribute to the growth of this country. So I think we have to help U.S. employers recruit candidates they believe they need to help their firms prosper. We have to give U.S. employers controlled options. We have to make their lives easier not harder.
International students get hired out of necessity; that’s something our international students must always keep in mind when job searching—at all times, by the way. They should never lose site of this. International students receive job offers often because they are able to address an employer need in a manner that perhaps a domestic candidate is unable to.
VAULT: Which industries are best for international students to get involved in now?
BARROS: This is another question that comes up all the time, both from university staff I train (and who work with international jobseekers) and also from international students themselves. The majority of H1-B visas go to computer science and engineering majors [approximately 78 percent]. So, U.S. employers seem to want to use the H1-B program for these roles, for which they often can’t find U.S. candidates to fill.
Although I monitor this kind of data because of the work I do, I hardly ever discuss these numbers with international students in detail. I just don’t find it helpful. As a jobseeker, you have to follow your dreams. You have to embrace your passion. You have to understand what your interests are. That’s a key starting point. I write some about this in my book. In the end, regardless of the odds of securing a visa, you make the job search marathon as an international student worth it. You have to pursue something real. And then, of course, you have to be smart about positioning yourself as a top and differentiated hire to U.S. employers. Technically it’s possible to secure an H1-B in just about any occupation.