When universities including Harvard and Stanford need a trainer to provide international students with hope and a strategy to achieve their job-search goals, they call on Marcelo Barros. The former associate director of MBA career coaching for international students at the University of Maryland Smith School of Business provides students with data, insights, and a strong dose of tough love – all leading, ideally, to the holy grail for many foreign students: a job in the U.S. after graduation. Poets&Quants recently sat down with Barros to hear his views on the current job-search climate for international students in America.
The U.S. work visa most commonly used by international MBAs, the H-1B, always has far too many applicants for the available visas. How big a problem is this for international students?
It’s a huge problem that needs immediate attention from our policy makers. I’d say it is daily source of concern and frustration for our international students in the United States who wish to try to stay and work in the U.S after graduation. There just are not enough visas, period. It’s a crazy situation that causes disruption for American employers that in many cases need to hire a foreign national, otherwise a role may go unfilled for months, if it gets filled.
To make matters worse for our international students, one needs to keep in mind that currently the H-1B program allows firms to use this visa to bring in workers from outside of the U.S. for temporary projects, for example. What has happened historically is that outsourcing firms based in India such as Tata Consulting, Infosys, and Wipro, for example, have historically snagged a substantial portion of available H-1B visas. Some consider this to be a misuse of the original intent of the H-1B program. Even though there are currently 85,000 H-1B visas available (65,000 under the regular cap and 20,000 for those with a U.S masters degree or higher) a large portion of these visas are not being granted to our international students.
The odds of international students being able to secure an H-1B visa and remain in the U.S would increase if fewer H-1B visas were being granted to outsourcing firms. The question for policy makers to decide is, “What in general makes more sense in terms of a strategy for the H-1B program?” Because of my work, I am in touch with recruiters and hiring managers from the largest firms in the U.S., such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple, and I can assure that these firms could not fill many of the critical jobs they need to fill if it weren’t for the H-1B program. And it’s not just technical jobs. The H-1B program has allowed employers from a variety of different industries to hire the people they want and need in order to continue to function. The H-1B has helped place teachers in Mississippi classrooms when no one else seemed interested in applying for those roles. See the article below.
As much as I defend the H-1B program, it does seem that certain aspects of the program, such as the large bulk of H-1B visas being granted to outsourcing firms, need to be looked at carefully. It’s possible that there have been unintended consequences associated with the H-1B program. However, it’d be a huge mistake to throw the baby out with the bath water. I suspect that there has been abuse and fraud with the H-1B program, as with any other government program. We need to fix this. But again, the main idea here is that we need to help U.S firms hire foreign nationals when they choose to do so. This is critical for the continued success and growth of this country. Getting rid of the visa-numbers cap, for example, makes much sense.
How does all of this affect the education of our international students in the U.S?
Well, there are perhaps two ways to try to answer the question of how the current H-1B situation affects our international students. Let’s first keep the following in mind: when the U.S government grants one of our international students a student visa (typically an F-1 or a J-1 visa) to come the U.S. to pursue an MBA or an MS degree, for example, no promise whatsoever is made to the visa applicant that he or she may have a chance to stay and work in the United States after graduation. In fact, a student visa is a non-immigrant visa. The U.S government thinks you’re going to go home after graduation. If fact, you are granted an F-1 visa because the consular office thought you’d return home, that you had no intention of immigrating to the U.S.
So if you analyze the situation under these lenses you could say that that the H-1B program does not affect the education of our international students. After all, they were granted permission to enter the U.S to obtain an education. That’s it.
But then there’s the reality that you, myself, and everyone in academia knows exists: many of our international students want to stay here and work after graduation. That is the ultimate prize for many. Some U.S employers want our international students to stay and work, too. A variety of U.S. employers from a variety of different industries year after year extend job offers to our international students despite the so-called risks associated with not being able to secure a visa. Why do U.S employers go through the trouble of hiring international students despite visa costs, bureaucracy, etc.? Do they do this out of the kindness of their hearts? No, firms hire our international students because they see something special in them. International students get hired out of necessity, and that is 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 not able to. There is a labor shortage in the U.S. in several areas, and many international students are able to fill this gap.
What are the timing challenges between the visa process and graduation schedule of most U.S universities?
Well, I am happy to speak about this but with much caution because I am not an immigration attorney. The following is intended as general information and should be not substituted for advice from an attorney. Let’s say you are a second-year international MBA student on an F-1 visa. Let’s imagine you received a job offer in the fall of your second year as an MBA. So essentially, you have a job. Awesome news! This is a great situation for an international student to be in. No major stress as a second-year. Things could maybe get even better if you can complete all of your course work for your degree before the current April 1 filing deadline for H-1B visas during your second year.
So in this scenario, maybe you will hustle as an MBA student and complete all of your coursework needed to graduate in the winter, for example, or at some point before April 1. In this case, it does not matter if your university does not hold graduation until May or June. Essentially, you have graduated. The commencement ceremony is a formality. So in this particular case, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration may be willing to accept your H-1B application while you’re still in school. Typically, one needs to submit a letter from a school official confirming that you have indeed completed all requirements for the degree, even though you don’t have your diploma yet. So in this case, the firm that offered you a job may have a chance to apply for your H-1B while you’re still in school.
Stanford 2015 MBA Alvaro Alliende at the Graduate School of Business – Ethan Baron photo
Chilean Stanford Graduate School of Business 2015 MBA Alvaro Alliende at the GSB – Ethan Baron photo
You still need to apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT)! If you get lucky right away, imagine this, you start your job in June or July, for example, on OPT, knowing that you already have your H-1B. If you don’t get lucky this first go-around, your employer can try again the following year. So in this year, you have two shots at competing for an H-1B visa. This is one possible way for international students to increase their odds. But remember, for this strategy to possibly work, international students need to:
• Receive a job offer before April 1
• Complete their degree requirements – essentially graduate – before April 1
• Confirm with the attorney filing your H-1B petition that it is possible to execute on this strategy. Citizenship and Immigration may be willing to accept an international student application under these circumstances. This is a really nice situation to be in, but again check with your attorney.
Laila, an MBA international student from Bangladesh, was able to utilize this strategy and expedite the filing of her H-1B. She received a job offer from Citigroup in the fall of her second year as an MBA and she completed her MBA requirements and graduated early, before the April 1 deadline. Citigroup correctly took advantage of this situation and was able to file and secure Laila’s H-1B visa before she started working for them.
However, situations such as Laila’s are much more the exception than the rule. When you look at the cadence of placement of international MBA students in the U.S., the reality is that international students tend to get placed late into their second year, sometimes over the summer, once they have graduated. If that is the case, with 12 months of OPT available for them, they will only have one chance at the H-1B visa lottery.
Do visa issues deter people from applying for a U.S. MBA?
Interesting question. I think about this. The U.S. invented the MBA degree. This is our recipe and we have become over the years quite good at managing and designing MBA programs. We are the best at it. The rest of the world has copied our model. We have, therefore, the attention of top MBA applicants from around the world. We have the best schools and the best system, but for how much longer? Unlike many years ago, we are not the only game in town anymore when it comes to quality business education.
Because of tools such as LinkedIn and the work that I do with international job seekers, many prospective international MBAs find me on LinkedIn and ask me, “How’s the job market in the U.S. for international students? Should I risk getting an MBA in America knowing I want to stay and work there – I know the H-1B reality is tough – or should I perhaps consider getting an MBA in Canada, for example, which is a country that seems to have an easier and more welcoming path to citizenship after graduation? Whether it is Canada or another country, my point is that our international students are taking into account the likelihood of finding employment in their host country when choosing what country they want to get an MBA in. That’s happening. I can assure you of this. We should be worried about this.
Does a foreign MBA student need two detailed plans – one for if they get a visa, one for if they don’t?
It really depends on the profile of each international MBA job seeker. This should not be a one-size-fits-all type of recommendation. From experience I can tell you that many international MBAs that I have worked with in the past displayed just the right characteristics to command the attention of top U.S employers that are open to sponsorship. Should an MBA with this kind of profile manage a Plan B-type of job search, such as searching for a job at home, concurrently, in addition to managing a job search for a U.S position? No, that would be a mistake. I am currently working with international MBAs whom I am quite certain will receive multiple offers from top U.S employers. I don’t want these students managing multiple job searches.
In fact, in this particular scenario, managing two job searches would come at the expense of putting maximum focus on trying to secure an awesome offer from a top U.S employer. The art is in diagnosing the likelihood of employment in the U.S., and putting a plan in place to make it happen. Other MBAs, on the other hand, may benefit from managing two job-search plans concurrently. So again, it depends, But again, while a “hedge my bets” kind of job search strategy may sound good in theory, it has proven to be extremely difficult for international students to execute on.
Something else to pay attention to is the split of time if one decides to search for a job at home and in the U.S. concurrently. Are we talking about a 50/50 split of time, or 80/20 split, with 80% of effort around finding a U.S position and 20% around finding a job at home? Understanding the split of time is critical. It’s like taking medication. You hope your doctor is not only prescribing you the right medication but that he’s also getting you to take the right dosage of the right medication. Such decisions are critical, and international students should seek help from their career advisors to discuss what makes the most sense. They should not make these decisions alone.
What workarounds are available if someone doesn’t get an H-1B visa?
It’s tough to get creative with the H-1B. I always get these types of questions from students when I do training at universities. In addition to the strategy above, there may be a couple of strategies for international students to consider. Again, check with an immigration attorney! Some international students start a new degree and essentially continue working by using full-time CPT once they start their new degree. This is definitely something to be discussed with an attorney.
Unfortunately after the fiasco with the H-1B lottery last year – 233,000 H1-B applications for a total pool of 85,000 visas – if you are an international student on OPT right now, you have to be working with the possibility that you will not get selected by the lottery. So what do you do? Well, I think you need to plan ahead. I’d consider the following:
• Talk to your boss before the lottery results about what may happen to you if you don’t get selected by the lottery. Engage your attorney if needed to see if he or she may have any ideas (they may not). This is mostly a business-strategy conversation and not a legal one. Depending on the type of job you have, it is possible that your manager may allow you to work from an office outside of the U.S. This is do-able in certain cases. Facebook and Amazon send their programmers to Canada and London sometimes when they don’t get lucky with the lottery.
Smaller firms may have similar options as well. One international student, Judith, took this route. She did not get lucky with the lottery, but her employer did not want to lose her. Since her job required interactions with Asia (China in particular) she was relocated to the Shanghai office and may later on come back to the U.S on an L-1 visa. Anant did not get lucky securing his H-1B visa either. But as with Judith, his employer did not want to lose him. After receiving bad news regarding the H-1B lottery, Anant relocated back to his home country, India, and continues to work for his company from there.
Wharton School operations and innovation management professor Christian Terwiesch teaching class – Ethan Baron photo
• Between the internet, collaboration technologies, and ease of travel, many of us are able to be productive and work remotely these days. So if you don’t get lucky with your H-1B, don’t think all is lost. You may have to leave the U.S., but you may be able to take your job with you and possibly come back to America later under the L-1 visa and continue working for the same employer.
• Life is an adventure. See where it will take you. Even if you receive “bad news” regarding the H-1B lottery, don’t panic. Strategize with your manager, and explore options to stay engaged with the firm that hired you, if you desire to do so.
What can international MBA students do to increase the odds of landing a quality position in the U.S.?
Have your job-search strategy validated by someone who understands the nuances international students have to deal with when searching for a U.S. position. Go to your school career services and engage with the staff there so they feel you really want a job. Be mindful of the reality that when international students compete with domestic students for jobs, they tend to lose unless they bring something special to the table, something that helps those they talk to take notice.
My training sessions across the U.S. are meant to help students get closer to understanding what their sweet spot is, and then designing a job-search strategy that increases their chances of U.S. employment given the reality we face today. That’s essentially what I do. It’s entirely possible to succeed and secure a job. We already know that many employers may take the easier and theoretically “safer” path and hire a U.S. citizen because they may feel international students are risky hires. You have to fight against this inertia every day as an international student.
To provide focus, one of the things I ask international students to do is to assess themselves according to the following categories: area of interest; skill set; experience; and language. It’s a simple exercise, one that is often conducted in some shape or form by career services, but it takes a completely different kind of spin when you are an international student operating outside of your usual context.
What do you tell employers who are reluctant about interviewing international students and have a “we don’t sponsor” policy?
Well, usually the people I talk to are not decision makers. They are mostly recruiters in the field and they live with the decisions made by others. What I do say is that I feel they are making a huge mistake by not interviewing international students. When appropriate, more often than not, I offer some unsolicited advice about their recruiting strategy and remind companies that the next Steve Jobs could be right now attending a U.S. university on an F-1 visa. We still attract the best and the brightest. These amazing individuals are right here at our college campuses, and U.S. companies sometimes take that for granted. “Would you want to miss out on the chance to hire such a student?” I ask the firms I talk to that don’t hire international students. “Wouldn’t you want to at least interview international students and assess on a case-by-case basis when it makes sense to extend a job offer to a rock star international student?”
MIT Sloan School of Management – Ethan Baron photo
To have a “we don’t sponsor” policy from the start is a bad strategy. There’s something quite magical that happens in the brains of international students. The cognitive boost that multicultural individuals possess has been extensively validated by credible research. Our international students are able to see patterns and business nuances and complexities that sometimes only bicultural individuals can notice. Sometimes our international students don’t have the best handshakes. Sometimes they are even a little hard to understand from time to time. But if you are the type who does not judge a book by its cover, and if you’re looking for a steady high-performer for your firm, then hiring an international student may end up being a very smart decision.
How does the large enrollment of international students across U.S. business schools impact the work of career services?
Career services was never envisioned to be an organization ready to be responsive to address the job-search needs of international students. My colleagues in career services have worked very hard over the past few years to create services and solutions that better address the job-search needs of our F-1 and J-1 students. I monitor what schools are doing on a daily basis, and I know we have made tremendous progress. With that said, I believe that most would say we still have a long way to go before we can confidently say that we are adequately addressing the career development needs of our international students. With some business school programs averaging about 40% international, for example, I am sure this will continue to be a top-of-mind issue for higher education professionals going forward.
The MBA is a fast-paced program, and MS programs, many filled with international students, are usually even shorter in duration, making it very hard for career services to decide just how much to provide to international students in terms of information and training that could make them stronger job seekers. Throw on top of that the unwillingness of many U.S. employers to sponsor, and the high expectations international students normally have from career services, and you can quickly see how difficult it can get for career services professionals who work with international students. It’s rewarding but tough work.
I encourage career centers to review what they are doing for international students from the standpoints of advising, employer relations, internal operations/student experience, and international-alumni relations. Breaking the discussion into four buckets has proven helpful in the past. Though far from perfect, career services are a strong component of a U.S. education and they normally offer fabulous programs and services that international students should leverage during their studies. If you are a career-driven international student and you’re not engaged with career services, you’re making your already difficult journey as an international job seeker harder than it needs to be.
In your book, The International Advantage: Get Noticed Get Hired, you indicate that international students have unfair advantages when looking for a job in the U.S. How can this be possible when sponsorship barriers are so huge?
We could sit here all day and dwell on the fact that so many companies don’t sponsor. I could similarly talk to you non-stop about my feelings about the H-1B program, just how broken I think the program is, and what the real cost to the U.S. is every time an international student needs to leave the payroll of an American firm because he or she did not get lucky with the H1-B lottery. While some of what I do professionally has to do with trying to address business concerns related to the H-1B program, this is not a conversation I have with international students who are trying to secure jobs in the U.S. We cannot allow our international students to feel victimized by the current visa situation.