Smoothing the way for International Students
Some companies hesitate to hire foreign nationals because they fear the costs or don’t understand the legal requirements. Case Western has developed strategies to remove obstacles and ease the way for international students.
As assistant dean of career and student affairs at Case Western Reserve university’s Weatherhead School of Management, I spend much of my time helping international students secure jobs. Since 2008, that has been harder to do, partly because of the economic downturn and partly because some employers believe there are too many obstacles to hiring graduates who are from outside the U.S.
We’re not the only school facing this challenge. According to data from AACSB International, about 13.3 percent of the students in general MBA programs at American schools are non-U.S. citizens; in EMBA and specialized degree programs, that percentage is 18.1 percent and 21.6 percent respectively. That means career services professionals all over the U.S. are looking for ways to show employers that our international MBA students could be assets to their companies.
At Weatherhead’s Career Management Office, my team and I have tried to make it as easy as possible for employers to understand the policies that affect our graduates—and to counter any objections to hiring them.
The ABCs of H1-Bs
It helps to first get some background. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has guidelines that govern employment opportunities for foreign nationals. Curricular Practical Training (CPT) allows students who have completed two semesters in school to take off-campus employment, typically through internships. If they’ve previously studied at a U.S. college, they don’t have to wait those two semesters.
Optional Practical Training (OPT) allows students to work in their fields of study for up to 12 months after graduation. Most candidates are entitled to a maximum of one year of OPT; there are some extensions for students in science, technology, engineering, and math fields, but most Weatherhead students don’t qualify.
Therefore, if American companies want to hire MBAs from outside the U.S., those MBAs need H1-B visas, which permit foreign nationals to work in the U.S. for up to three years. (In most cases, this period can be extended by another three years.) The annual quota for H1-B visas is 65,000, with an extra 20,000 available for graduates with master’s degrees from accredited U.S. schools. For our purposes, there are 85,000 visas available to international students in the U.S. each year.
April 1 is the first day for any foreign national to file an H1-B visa application; if approved, the visa is in effect from October 1 of that year. In both 2007 and 2008, USCIS received more than 170,000 applications within the first week
of April. USCIS was forced to hold a lottery to award the visas each of those years.
This had a chilling effect on some companies’ international hiring policies. If a business hired an international student in November 2006, but she lost in the visa lottery, she would be able to stay in that job for only another year under OPT guidelines. The situation changed for a while after 2009—more H1-B visas were available until much later in the year— but in 2013, USCIS was looking at a lottery again. Given this level of uncertainty, many employers have become reluctant to hire international students. At least, that has been the case for local companies within Case Western’s home market in northeast Ohio.
At Weatherhead’s Career Management Office, we’ve developed a set of strategies to educate employers about the realities of H1-Bs in today’s international market and help them more easily navigate the process of hiring international students.
Smoothing the Way
Many employers are actually open to the idea of hiring international candidates—they just don’t know where to start. One company representative asked, “Is it legal to hire international students?” Another one was interested in some of our international students, but said he had “no idea how to hire them.” However, other companies have instituted policies against hiring international students. One HR professional told us he feared a backlash from the community if he hired foreign nationals while locals were out of work.
But we believe certain employers might waive their stated policies if they meet great candidates. For instance, a multinational conglomerate recently posted an internship opportunity on our job board, specifying that it was open to domestic candidates only. When the recruiter arrived to conduct an information session, we suggested that the company consider opening the opportunity to our foreign students, whom we had advised to attend. In the end, the hiring manager selected an international student for the summer 2012 opportunity and invited him to continue his internship through the next two semesters.
Weatherhead’s international student Indrajeet Ghatge (left) collaborates with a fellow MBA candidate, Gabriel Forte.
To help recruiters meet and hire our great international students, we’ve designed tools and strategies that have had excellent results.
- We’ve written a manual.Our International Recruiting Guide uses very simple terms to dispel the myths and clear up the mysteries surrounding the process of hiring international students. The guide has been extremely well received by the employer community.
In it, we explain the requirements for on-campus and off-campus employment during school and after graduation. In particular, we cover the rules of CPT and OPT; we emphasize that companies who wish to retain international employees must file H1-B visa petitions on their behalf with USCIS before the OPT period expires. Our team directs employers to various resources related to the H1-B visa process. We also put together simple cheat sheets that explain internships, OPT, CPT, and H1-B visas.
- We hold educational seminars. In these events, we walk attendees through the process of hiring students for CPT and OPT. We bring in a local immigration attorney to discuss H1-B visas and green cards, as well as other factors companies must consider when hiring foreign nationals. Since 2009, we’ve held three seminars, the most recent one in collaboration with Global Cleveland and the Cleveland chapter of the Society of Human Resource Management.
That last seminar, held in October 2012, was titled “Breaking the Myths and Unlocking the Benefits of Hiring International Talent.” Attendees could earn two continuing professional education credits, which helped increase attendance by more than 20 percent.
At the seminar, we presented the business case for hiring international students for internships. We made the point that any company desiring a global presence should hire foreign nationals, because these employees inevitably promote cross-cultural awareness, multilingualism, and an understanding of global market dynamics.
- We host a career fair. We believe that HR professionals who might be reluctant to hire international students could change their minds once they meet some of our candidates. We facilitate those meetings through our career fair.
If companies at the fair are willing to talk with international students, we offer them a discount. Even if they say no, we let them know they might meet international candidates whom they like. We tell them that if that occurs they should get back in touch with us so we can walk them through the hiring process.
- We provide one-on-one attention. In fact, any time an employer wants guidance in finding or hiring one of our international students, we’re happy to step in. We tell our international students that they should always feel free to pass along our contact information to prospective employers or put us directly in touch with HR staff. We even worked with the legal department of one company to help it hire one of our graduates as its first non-U.S. national employee.
We also take advantage of any other opportunities we have to make connections between our students and potential employers. Recently we were contacted by a Weatherhead alumnus who owns a company with operations in China.
The company was expecting a visit from a Chinese counterpart and needed a translator who had business knowledge. The faculty director of our full-time MBA program recommended a Chinese candidate; the company liked her so much they designed a job description for her. I was delighted to provide them with information about how to hire her.
- We educate our students. While we’re committed to easing the way for companies that recruit our international students, we know we also must educate students so they can help themselves. Early in their time at Weatherhead, we make sure to inform them about their employment options; we give them all the details of CPT and OPT, though we discuss H1-B visas closer to graduation. We tell them to let prospective employers know that hiring an international student for an internship requires no extra effort— and hiring one for full-time employment is simpler than they think.
On the Drawing Board
While all of these efforts have paid off, we continue to look for new ways we can smooth the path for our international students. Two ideas are particularly attractive:
- Offering legal support. Many companies believe that the H1-B visa application process is costly and requires specialized legal knowledge. In fact, an in-house lawyer can handle all the paperwork—and even hiring a domestic candidate requires paperwork. The application fee depends on the size of the company, but the maximum cost is US$2,200. (Employers seeking premium processing can pay an additional $1,225, but this is not required.)
A small company that doesn’t have an in-house lawyer might have to hire a legal consultant to handle the paperwork, and this additional cost might deter it from looking at our students. I have proposed following the lead of the KATZPORT program at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business. The school has retained an immigration attorney who works with companies and prospective hires throughout the employment authorization process.
Involving employers directly. We’ve recently been discussing a new idea with multinational employers who have branches in China or India, even if they don’t sponsor H1-B visas. We have proposed that we share résumés of admitted MBA candidates with them so they can identify a few whose backgrounds—in engineering, for instance—suit their needs.
The companies will offer these students fellowships; we also expect them to hire the students for an internship followed by a year of full-time employment. After those experiences, the students can return to their home countries to work for the same companies there.
We believe a program like this would be particularly useful for students in our master’s-level finance and operations programs. These tend to attract applicants from China and India—students who frequently boast outstanding academic backgrounds but little time on the job. The U.S. dollar has been strong, so students can enjoy an economic advantage if they work in the U.S. for at least a few years after graduation. They also become more marketable once they have work experience outside their countries of origin.
Going forward, we’d like to explore more new ideas for placing our international students with U.S. companies. We also hope to find additional ways to overcome employers’ perceived obstacles to hiring them. We’re confident that, if given a chance, our students will prove their quality. And we believe that companies will find that it’s worth the effort to take the few extra steps required to bring these students on board.
Meenakshi Sharma is assistant dean of career and student affairs at Case Western Reserve University’s Weather-head School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.