Potential changes in immigration rules and laws dominated headlines in 2017. And many of these changes could significantly impact international students’ ability to find jobs and start careers in the U.S. So, last week, Vault again spoke with international student career expert Marcelo Barros. Vault asked Barros what he recommends international students do now to navigate the uncertain world of employment and H-1B visas in 2018 and beyond. Below is an excerpt of that conversation.
VAULT: To say the least, last year seemed like a very difficult one for international students in the U.S. What’s your overall sense of 2017? And what’s your sense of the year ahead for international students who want to start careers in the U.S. after graduation?
BARROS: Trump’s “Buy American and Hire American” executive order signed in April 2017 created an environment of uncertainty and fear for international students and for organizations interested in hiring them. The current administration has been trying to find ways to make it harder for firms to obtain H-1B visas for their international workers, not through any change in the law, so far, but through more red tape and bureaucracy. There’s some good news here: the current rules regarding applying for and receiving an H-1B visa haven’t changed. This is something international candidates must point out to firms that might be interested in hiring them. International students must not let their future prospective employers overreact and incorrectly interpret the current set of immigration dynamics that are happening in the U.S. When appropriate, students should interject, take control of the visa conversation, calm employers down, focus on the facts, and convince employers to hire them.
VAULT: What did we specifically learn in 2017 that indicates the U.S. government might not want international students working here after graduation?
BARROS: One indicator of how tough 2017 was for international students looking to work in the U.S. after graduation was the spike in “requests for evidence,” which are notices the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services department sends to H-1B applicants requesting more information. The office issued around 40 percent more of these RFEs in 2017 than in 2016. Essentially, when government issues an RFE, it’s indicating that it’s not sure if the applicant should get an H-1B visa or not, so they need to ask additional questions and, often times, the applicant and his or her immigration attorney needs to submit additional documentation as well. RFEs represent one way to execute on Trump’s “Buy American and Hire American” executive order.
VAULT: Are these 2107 RFEs legitimate?
BARROS: In many cases they aren’t. Lawyers who represent H-1B applicants are pulling their hair out as they’re now getting many unwarranted requests. Ask any immigration attorney with experience with H1-B applications and RFEs and they’ll tell you many of the RFEs in 2017 are unjustified and unnecessary. When an RFE gets issued, the hiring manager of an international student and HR personnel typically need to get involved to provide the government the additional information it’s requesting, and that makes the process longer, more expensive for employers, and more nerve wrecking for international students. Rounding up the documents to address USCIS concerns, submitting them, and awaiting a response takes time and creates uncertainty, which may be precisely what the government wants. Employers should be mindful of the government tactics and should not get discouraged. They should move forward with their plans to hire international students if that’s what they need to do. At the end of the day, the government might be able to slow the process down, but if international hires get lucky with the visa lottery and meet the criteria to receive an H-1B, their employer will keep them.
Speaking of RFEs, we’d been closely following the case of Bihn Phan, an international student from Vietnam and University of Houston accounting major who found himself caught in the middle of an RFE in 2017. In the end, Bihn and his immigration attorney won their RFE response, and Bihn’s employer, Markel Corporation, was able to keep him. Bihn’s RFE should never have been issued in the first place, though. International students currently working and getting ready to file for their H-1Bs this coming April 1 should ask their immigration attorneys: What will our strategy be to avoid an RFE?
VAULT: Given all the uncertainty, what should international students do to improve their chances of getting hired that might differ from what they’ve done in the past?
BARROS: International students should always remember that many U.S. employers can’t find the skills they need, and this challenge creates great employment opportunities for them. So while Donald Trump might not want to see international students getting hired, international students are needed in many areas, including education, health care, technology, and others. Those with hopes of working in the U.S. after graduation can find success if they can give American firms what they need. When U.S. companies can’t find the right workers with the right skills at the right time, international students get hired and get visas. And it’s not just large firms. The National Federation of Independent Business reports that 45 percent of small businesses were unable to find qualified candidates to fill job openings. Smaller, lesser known firms represent wonderful job opportunities for international students willing to get off the beaten path and evaluate employment opportunity with quality, high growth, unknown firms, which are sometimes located in not so desirable parts of the U.S. “Go where the jobs are and give U.S. employers what they want and need plus more,” is what I ask international students to do.
It’s also important for international jobseekers to keep their skill set fresh and ahead of their peers. Online courses represent wonderful opportunities for international students to complement their university work and gain an edge. American employers don’t care if you taught yourself a programming language they need, or if you learned the skill in class. And then, of course, international students need to be smart about which areas they might want to target. We’ve been talking about big data analytics and cloud computing for a while now, and while these are still hot areas, artificial intelligence and machine learning have now become part of our daily lives, and students who can work in these spaces will create very interesting and lucrative job opportunities for themselves. So, as an international student with hopes of staying and working in the U.S. after graduation, you must ask yourself: Am I ready to aggressively exploit the employment gap that exists in the U.S.? Am I able to orient my profile towards in demand areas? Am I pursuing the right college major? Do I have the new set of current, advanced skills that American employers desperately need and that I might not be learning in class? Do I represent the employer of the future or am I simply another candidate with a U.S. college degree who wants to break into tech and hopefully secure an H1-B visa?
VAULT: If you could break down your job search advice to five tips, what would your recommendations be for international students in 2018?
1. Due to the increase in RFEs, before you accept a job you should speak with an immigration attorney on your own, not through your future employer. This will allow you to get an initial opinion if the job you’ve been offered is H-1B-approvable.
2. Make sure there’s a tight connection between what you studied in college and your job. If you get a degree in accounting, you can’t get a job as an engineer even if you find an organization willing to hire you as an engineer. Your H-1B petition will not be approved.
3. Keep your profile fresh and ahead of your peers. Become a super competitive candidate who’s highly skilled, clearly stands out from the pack, and keeping up with whatever changes might be happening in your field.
4. Spend time with firms that might sponsor you. If you’re getting a lot of “sorry, we don’t sponsor,” you’re not talking with the right companies.
5. Engage with your school’s career services center. They’re in your corner. Engage early and often, and especially when you feel ready to throw in the towel.
Marcelo Barros is the founder of The International Advantage, a firm specializing in providing job search training for international students. He is also the author of The International Advantage: Get Noticed. Get Hired!, a job search guide for international students. In 2017, Barros conducted job search training for international students at more than 30 universities in the U.S. To learn more about how Barros will partner with U.S. universities in 2018, connect with him via LinkedIn.