To say the least, the Trump administration didn’t extend a warm welcome to international students at U.S. colleges and universities. Will the Biden administration be more welcoming? Will international students have a better chance of securing H-1B visas? Will they have an easier time landing jobs and internships with U.S. employers? Are there new job-search strategies they should be using?
To answer these and other questions on the minds of international students as the Biden presidency begins, we spoke with international student career expert Marcelo Barros. Below is an excerpt of that conversation.
Vault: Just before Trump left office, his administration reissued rules for H-1B wage increases that seem designed to price H-1B visa holders out of the U.S. labor market. Should international students be worried?
Barros: In the near term, international students shouldn’t pay any attention to this development. This is the kind of news that distracts international students from doing what they need to do: figure out ways to make themselves indispensable to U.S. employers. In the long run, this rule could be placed on hold by the Biden administration. And, as we’ve seen in the past, the regulation could be challenged in federal court. Regardless, if they go through, the increased wage minimums wouldn’t be imposed until July 1, 2021, so their impact would not be immediate. In other words, it’ll be business as usual for the upcoming April 2021 H-1B visa season. Right now, current prevailing wage levels still apply. So, I recommend international students ignore announcements about possible H-1B wage increases for the time being and focus on getting hired in in the next two months, so their employers can hopefully file for their H-1B visas this April.
Speaking of the upcoming H-1B visa season, how do the odds look for international students who want to secure H-1Bs this year?
Given the softening of the economy, and the general decrease in hiring, we could see fewer H-1B applications in 2021 compared to past years, which would then increase the odds of international students securing visas in the lottery. If this scenario does materialize, this upcoming H-1B visa season could be one of the best ever for international students competing for an H-1B visa. Some international students are in very high demand now right now. And it’s not just computer science majors that are in demand. We’ve seen success across a variety of industries and fields, even in theology and the arts. As is always the case, getting hired comes down to preparation. The International Advantage has been working with top U.S. employers that are H-1B visa-friendly, and they pretty much all tell us the same thing: “We don’t need more candidates; we need the right candidates.” We see a continued struggle from the best U.S. employers to attract top talent that can add true value to their firms. Trying to grant foreign workers H-1B visas is not the issue for these firms. Finding the right type of candidate is.
What else can international students expect this lottery and recruiting season?
Here’s what appears to be going on: Prior to leaving office, President Trump extended the freeze for certain H-1B workers. The extension is currently in place until March 31, 2021, and it was done in the name of protecting American workers. But this rule only applies to workers outside of the U.S.—it doesn’t hurt international students in the country now. In fact, it’s possible that international students currently seeking U.S. employment will benefit from this continuation of restriction since they might have less competition from workers outside of the U.S. This interesting dynamic was pointed out to me by two Wall Street recruiters we work with.
Due to the pandemic and changes to the economy and job market, should international students now be targeting different industries or companies when looking for internships and full-time jobs?
One thing international students can do is identify firms that have benefited as a result of the pandemic. For example, there’s been record growth for all things fitness-related. Fitness apps were downloaded by the millions. Firms in the fitness industry have been aggressively looking for marketing, sales, and digitally savvy professionals who can help them convince you and me that we can and should still work out at home. So why not target these firms?
Fitness is just one example, but it illustrates that international students should focus their efforts around firms and industries that are benefiting from the pandemic. Students should definitely revisit their target lists of firms. I think many of them haven’t done that. We all know that the technology, e-commerce, housing, and consumer product industries have thrived during Covid. H-1B visa-friendly companies such as Amazon and CVS stepped up their hiring in 2020. The virus has rewarded certain industries. We tend to forget that. While you can’t control the job market, international students can research which positions and skills are currently in demand. And even if the industry or sector you have experience in isn’t hiring, you can still focus on jobs that require sought after skills you might have—preferably skills that are high in demand and short in supply because that always increases the chance of H-1B sponsorship.
Are there certain cities that international students should be targeting?
It could be beneficial to some international students to focus their job search around U.S. cities with large numbers of job openings that offer sponsorship. In some cases, international students might even benefit from moving to these centers after graduation, particularly if they went to school in a small town or in a state that historically hasn’t hired a significant number of international students or H-1B workers. Seattle, Austin, Boston, San Francisco, New York City, and Raleigh-Durham are cities international students should focus their job search in. These cities tend to be H-1B friendly cities, and there’s also a high number of open jobs there.
What are the three most important strategies you recommend to international students looking for jobs and internships this year?
1. Strengthen your skill set.
To realize your job search goals, you need to be ready to compete for the roles you want. And no matter what your chosen industry or career is, developing in-demand skills or pursuing certifications will help you to stand out as a candidate and help you with your H-1B visa approval down the road. Pursuing professional development shows initiative and a commitment to learning, as well as an understanding of what it takes to excel in your field. It also makes it easier for you to answer the question that all hiring managers are likely to ask in one form or another: “How can you add value to the organization?”
2. Put less focus on your resume.
These days, recruiters are relying less and less on resumes and cover letters. So, focus on building a digital presence that attracts recruiters to your profile. Create digital content often and upload samples of your work for prospective employers to peruse. Add skills to your profile that you have that your American friends might lack. Today’s recruiters can quickly scan hundreds of LinkedIn profiles before a human eye can see them. And these searches are often based on key words. If your profile lacks those keywords, you won’t be flagged as a potential qualified candidate. Don’t have much of an online presence? Make developing one part of your resolution.
3. Search for mentorship opportunities.
The U.S. is filled with former international students, and many are now U.S. citizens, have a ton of contacts, and are often eager to help other international students secure jobs. So, seek out assistance often. Join virtual events hosted by professional or alumni organizations from your school, or other groups relevant to your profession or industry. Ask trusted colleagues and friends for their recommendations of who to talk to. Be strategic and genuine in your requests to make connections. And don’t stop nurturing ties with the professional contacts you already have. The U.S. is a melting pot. Meeting people and creating genuine connections shouldn’t be a chore—it should be fun. The added bonus, of course, is that your friends and contacts can play critical roles in your ability to achieve your job-search goals and remain in the U.S. after graduation.
Is there anything you else you want to add that I didn’t ask about, or that you recommend international students do this year?
It’s important to remember that the job search is difficult for everyone. And for international students, the process can be even more stressful, more time-consuming, and more anxiety-inducing. So, I recommend taking care of yourself mentally and physically along the way in 2021—it could be another very difficult year—and always be thankful for what you have now, and for how far you’ve come.
Marcelo Barros is the founder of The International Advantage, a firm specializing in providing job search training for international students who seek U.S. jobs. Barros encourages international students who seek U.S. jobs or internships to enroll in The International Advantage Get Hired Video Course, designed to help foreign students beat visa odds and secure U.S. employment, including internships.