In the wake of the U.S. presidential election and with the fall school semester soon coming to an end, Vault reached out to international student career advisor Marcelo Barros (whom we spoke with last spring) to get a feel for the current job prospects for international students at business schools across the country, as well as an understanding for how a Trump presidency might affect the government’s H-1B visa program. Below is an excerpt from that conversation.
VAULT: Let’s start with the big news that caught most of the world by surprise. What do you think the impact of a Trump presidency will have on international students at U.S. universities?
BARROS: International students are understandably anxious, but the real impact is unknown. Trump’s message was not an inclusive one, and it made many immigrants like me uncomfortable. But the reality is nobody knows what’s going to happen. I don’t suspect U.S. business schools will see a decrease in interest from prospective international student applicants going forward. In my opinion, with or without Trump, the American dream is still alive, and the U.S. will continue to be the premier choice for the majority of international students who want to obtain an international college degree.
However, an additional source of anxiety from international students comes from the fact that the private sector is nervous. As an example, Silicon Valley is extremely dependent on the H-1B program and doesn’t know what lies ahead for the tech sector. High profile CEOs have already started to flex their muscles and reach out to Trump’s team to engage in conversation regarding amending the H-1B program. Many want the H-1B cap eliminated—that’s the position I take as well—but many also want to understand what may have caused abuse within the H-1B program. We will see. My company, The International Advantage, will intensify its collaboration efforts in 2017 with lobbying groups in D.C. who will be pushing hard for sensible immigration reform, which will obviously include a revamp of the H-1B program. I wish U.S. colleges would speak up about the H-1B program on behalf of the large numbers of international students they enroll, but, unlike the private sector, they have been quiet for the most part.
VAULT: Speaking of the H-1B program, what lies ahead for international MBAs as far as the visa is concerned?
BARROS: For fiscal year 2016, there were roughly 236,000 H-1B petitions filed. We have to remember that this wasn’t a bad number. There were roughly 233,000 petitions filed the year before, so the increase was minimal, which was a good. A drastic increase in the number of petitions might have made the employer community even more hesitant to consider international students as hires due to the limited supply of available visas.
This is what I always say: If you’re an international MBA or MS student and don’t attend a top-tier program that attracts the attention of the employers that sponsor internationals, you should train like an Olympian athlete. This means you need to “get up early” every day and create job search strategies that allow you to get noticed by firms that might be willing to sponsor you but don’t come to your campus. The level of job-search commitment and focus is much higher than what international students initially realize. As I’ve stated many times before, I don’t sweat the H-1B visa situation too much. It is what it is. I continue to place a huge bet on small to mid-size high-growth firms needing to go global, needing top talent, and being risk-takers by nature.
VAULT: So is targeting mid-size firms a smart route for international MBA students to take?
BARROS: It’s a strategy that deserves careful consideration, but it may not be for everybody. Unlike big-name firms that normally don’t deviate from company policy, smaller firms are more nimble. If you talk with a hiring manager at a smaller firm who wants to hire you and you need an H-1B visa, the hiring manager picks up the phone, calls the company CEO or VP of HR and asks for permission to move forward with an international hire. That’s just how it works. Decisions are made quickly. But in order to be successful in this smaller company space, you need to be a differentiated candidate who offers superior value. If you’re a career transitioner with moderate experience and if you lack skills that are in demand by the market, smaller firms may not be the right targets, as they normally seek candidates who can make an impact their first day on the job. Another challenge for international students is that these firms normally don’t recruit at college campuses so students often need to identify potential companies targets on their own.
It’s important to remember that an H-1B petition from Microsoft has the same odds of getting picked by the lottery as a petition from a 50-person company that no one’s heard of. So yes, it’s a strategy that’s worth evaluation. It may work for some students. It may not work for others.
VAULT: Have you heard any interesting international student success stories lately?
BARROS: I’ve heard plenty. The press is normally negative about the job search prospects of international students, but I continue to see international students get high paying jobs and securing H-1B visas in a variety of different industries, at a variety of different firms. Not too long ago I spoke with an MBA from the William and Mary Mason School of Business named Juan Quiros. Juan not only secured a full-time job offer while still in school (he interned with Citigroup and converted his summer internship into a full-time job offer) but was also able to work with his employer and apply for his H-1B before he finished his MBA. His strategy was very smart and, often, in my opinion, it’s not a job search strategy that’s discussed enough by immigration attorneys who visit college campuses to speak with international students. In Juan’s case, he got lucky and secured his visa early. He now works in NYC and already has an H-1B visa.
I’d like to see more international students replicating Juan’s success, but for this strategy to possibly work, they must secure a job offer before April 1st during their last year in school. Many international students are unaware this is an option. It’s a way to beat the odds and tilt the H-1B lottery odds in their favor. But it’s not easy to do.
Another recent success story involves Vikas Jagwani. Vikas is from India, and when I met him he was a senior, completing his bachelor’s degree in accounting from Drury University. Vikas was targeting Big 4 firms and, to make a long story short, he secured an interview with PwC, and PwC fell in love with him and extended him a job offer in the fall of his last year in college. With an offer in hand, Vikas then needed to hustle to try to finish his degree early—before the current H-1B filing deadline—so his firm could apply for his H-1B while he was still in school. And that’s exactly what happened. Like Juan, Vikas got lucky and secured his visa.
VAULT: What advice do you have for international students who just started school this fall and dream about a great job in the U.S.?
BARROS: When I speak with international students, the first thing I do is to remind them not to take for granted how much they’ve accomplished already. Before they arrived at U.S. colleges, there were test scores to worry about, tough interviews to go through to secure student visas, tough loans to secure in order to finance their studies, family left behind in their home countries. After I remind them of this, I tell them motivation alone won’t be enough to secure a job in the U.S. I tell them people do judge a book by its cover in the U.S. hiring world and the “best” job candidate is not always the one who’s hired. I also tell international students that in today’s highly interconnected and digital world that they have some advantages that often are not available to U.S students, and that if they play their cards right, they can definitely win. I’m always very careful not to over-simplify the job search journey, though. It’s a complex process for anybody, let alone someone who wasn’t born in this country and came here as an international student. In addition, here are some additional tips I often share with students:
1. Get in early and learn. If you know your career interests, look for ways to develop yourself and become great at whatever it is you want to do. Think short-term, unpaid projects at your school to start, no matter how you feel about your language skills. Volunteer. Move fast and gain U.S work experience.
2. Networking is important, but it may not matter if you’re not a strong candidate. All the networking in the world may not lead to job leads if you don’t have a profile that a U.S. employer finds attractive. Much of the training I do at U.S universities is focused on this notion. So, you need to work hard to become as strong of a jobseeker as you can.
3. Give up on finding the perfect job early on. Instead, find positions that increase your chances of moving to OPT [Optional Practical Training] if you desire to stay in the U.S. The U.S job market is fluid and people tend to change jobs. Over the long haul, your first job out of school won’t matter so much, and life tends to get easier once you secure your H-1B.
4. Look where no one’s looking. There are states in the U.S. that have a hard time attracting college graduates looking for their first job out of school. Target these states. Don’t just look for jobs in California. Low supply of domestic candidates may mean more pressure on U.S. employers to open up their jobs to international students.
5. Surround yourself with strong support. Go beyond the career center staff at your university and develop genuine relationships with people who like you and want you to get a job. Ask for help often. Even strangers can help us find jobs. International students need to remember that people don’t need their best friend in order to open a door for them. Someone they might not know too well could be the one to lead them to an H-1B job.
Marcelo Barros is the author of The International Advantage: Get Noticed. Get Hired!, a book that gives international students an edge when job searching. To learn more about how Barros partners with U.S. universities to help international students achieve their job-search goals, connect with him via LinkedIn.