A new report from researchers at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) and the St. Louis Mosaic Project has uncovered the legal and cultural barriers international students must face to find employment in the USA.

For international students in the States, the battle to find employment is exacerbated by legislative restrictions that form the visa approval process from college through to post-graduation.

For a number of years, hordes of international graduate students have encountered hurdles in the job market, and according to reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates from 2007 up to now range from 8 to 15 percent.

In the USA, international students have F1 visas which allow them to study but not to work in America. In order to work, international students must obtain a H-1B visa. Employers may then sponsor the student by paying a sum of money for paperwork and the new type of visa after they are hired.

Jennifer Morton, co-author of the report and doctoral student of Industrial and Organizational Psychology at UMSL, interviewed executives at 15 of St. Louis’ largest companies, including Centene, Monsanto, Sigma-Aldrich and World Wide Technology, Inc. She found that human resources managers were infuriated by an employment process that can last longer than a year. She says: “We have great education in our local universities that international students are experiencing.

“What a shame it is not to welcome that talent that we cultivate into our workforce community. Instead, we’re sending that talent often times not even to that person’s country of origin, but to other cities in the US where these individuals can find employment.”

Among the legal grievances the local companies reported are restrictions on the number of H-1B visas, which allow foreign students specialising in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects to stay and work in America.

Of the 85,000 H-1B visas the US government assigns each year, 20,000 are reserved for international students in possession of a Masters degree or higher; but during the fiscal year 2015, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) received almost 233,000 applications. Such a huge number of applicants meant the students’ fates were determined through a kind of lottery, leaving many managers stressed, according to the report, as they had to lead students through a traumatic and emotionally draining experience.

In June 2013, the US senate passed an immigration reform bill that would increase the cap on H-1B visas to 110,000 each year, but the House of Representatives prevented the bill from going to the floor for a vote.

The H-1B visa process has become the subject of debate regarding US immigration reform. Recently, a group of Silicon Valley tech-chiefs, led by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have been pushing congress to up the number of H-1Bs administered every year. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns that companies are playing the system to undermine qualified Americans in favour of cheap foreign labour.

The report demonstrates that even when a H-1B is granted, students looking to work in the St. Louis area still face multiple barriers. For example, the report found a lack of cultural awareness training for human resource professionals in some of St. Louis’ organisations.

Kathy Steiner-Lang, assistant vice chancellor and director of Washington University’s Office of International Students and Scholars, says: “There are some employers and some interviewers who can’t see past the accent.

“I think part of that is exposure to people who have accents and taking a little more time to understand what they are saying.”

The report notes that once on the job, foreign employees can struggle to fit into the workplace. Consequently, when international students land themselves a working position they stand no chance of progressing up the career ladder.

Using information from universities and colleges in the region, including the University of Missouri Columbia and Missouri University of Science and Technology, the report determined that most international students originated from China, India and Saudi Arabia, while a number of the local companies reported a demand for workers from Latin America and other emerging markets.

The majority of international students wish to stay in America after their studies because of the opportunities available, but now many are concerned there will not be a career opening once they graduate.

Harsh Karthik, a second-year applied mathematics student from the United Arab Emirates, says: “It’s a scary question to answer when you’re done- the ‘Now What?’ And when you have no response, that feeling of uncertainty is frankly quite scary. I don’t know how to deal with that.”

While the report emphasises the challenges international students face when it comes to finding employment, it also highlights a number of important solutions.

Last year, universities in the St. Louis region launched a program designed to help international students find work after graduation. The International Student Global Talent Hiring Program now incorporates eight universities, all of which network methods for helping international students in St. Louis find employment.

Monsanto’s vice president of global talent acquisition and diversity and inclusion, Melissa Harper, said that diversifying St. Louis’ business community will help attract top talent to the area.

She says: “They’re looking for companies that are diverse, that support inclusion and that have leaders at the top who like them. To continue to grow and prosper as a region, we’re going to have to understand what it means to compete for talent globally.”

With graduate prospects looking increasingly grim across many states of America, and many foreign students struggling to see the benefit of studying in the States, perhaps it is time for regional universities to follow the lead of St. Louis and invest in the future if their international student cohort. If the employment of international students continues to decline, America could face losing its global reputation as one of the best locations to study.

Image via Shutterstock.

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