Getting a job is one thing, a visa is another
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Saurabh Awasthi has hit the same wall as many other foreign-born students.
A chemical engineering master's degree student at Carnegie Mellon University, the native of Ghaziabad, India, has a 3.92 grade point average and plans to finish his work a year early in August. Yet he hasn't been able to win a single job offer from an American company.
He can't say for sure whether the reason for his difficulty is the problem international students have getting work visas, but he has received hints that it might be part of the challenge.
At one job fair he attended at Carnegie Mellon, a representative of Merck & Co. Inc. told him the pharmaceutical firm doesn't hire international students. A representative of Capital One, the giant credit card company, told him that the firm had hired some foreign-born graduates last year, but when they were unable to get work visas, the company was left short, and it decided not to make such hires this year.
While both Merck and Capital One declined to comment, there is no doubt that the limits on H-1B visas create serious employment problems for foreign students graduating from American schools.
This year, the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service limited the number of H-1B visa applications to 85,000, including 20,000 for advanced-degree students like Mr. Awasthi who are graduating from American institutions
During the five-day application period last month, the government received 163,000 petitions, including 31,200 for advanced-degree students.
High-tech companies like Microsoft and Intel have argued for years that the limits should be removed, saying they hurt the U.S. economy and thwart the firms' ability to hire the best and brightest employees from around the world. Opponents say limits are needed to keep foreign citizens from taking jobs that could go to qualified Americans.
Carnegie Mellon is at ground zero in the H-1B debate. Nearly 25 percent of its students come from other countries -- primarily India, China and South Korea -- and at the advanced-degree level, 40 percent to 45 percent of master's students and nearly 65 percent of Ph.D. students are foreign-born, said Lisa Krieg, director of the school's Office of International Education.
This term, Ms. Krieg's office surveyed 137 graduating international students, and found that a majority had "a very high or high level of anxiety" about their visa status. Of the 68 who had received job offers by early April, more than a third were told by employers that they either would have to work for the firm outside the United States until visa issues were resolved, or would not get the offer at all until a visa was obtained.
While the number of international students winning jobs undoubtedly has improved in the last six weeks, said Paul Fowler, director of the school's Career Center, the visa restrictions are still a major concern.
When Microsoft chairman Bill Gates visited Carnegie Mellon's campus in late February, he reiterated his desire to get rid of the H1-B visa cap.
"Hopefully we're the loudest voice out there saying how insane it is that these hyperqualified students that the U.S. government has very much supported in their learning ... are forced to leave the U.S.," Mr. Gates said.
"If there was one thing Congress could do about competitiveness that is purely a win, it would be to allow these highly qualified people to come to this country. What is the greatest advantage this country has? Maybe it's that some of the smartest people in the world want to come here and work here."
Referring to the enthusiastic student audience that had just listened to his talk, Mr. Gates said: "If you asked people to raise their hands in that audience and answer whether they were being forced to leave the country [after graduation], you'd have seen a lot of hands."
Congress is considering bills to raise the H-1B visa cap this year, as it has in the past, but there are no legislative proposals to abolish it altogether.
One of the lucky graduates at Carnegie Mellon is Nalin Singal, who will get his diploma in computer science today and then go to work for Microsoft as a software developer in Redmond, Wash.
"One of the reasons I was more comfortable with Microsoft," said the 22-year-old from New Delhi, "is because of all the companies that extended offers to me, Microsoft was the only one which did not give me any visa trouble, because their option was, in case I didn't get an H-1B, they would get me a visa in Canada and I could just live in Vancouver."
When there is a surplus of H-1B visa applications, the government distributes them by lottery, so Microsoft has to take its chances with everyone else. Of the roughly 300 people for whom Microsoft could not get H-1B visas last year, about half ended up in Vancouver, said Jack Krumholtz, Microsoft's managing director of federal government affairs.
Mr. Singal said he did get a job offer from computer firm Nvidia, but was told he would have to work in India, "which I was perfectly fine with, but as far as the salary goes, the recruiter didn't really give me a clear answer." And in the case of AT&T, he said, "as soon as I said I was international, they literally hung up the phone on me" during the interview.
Mr. Singal's story demonstrates the other reason work visas are so iffy for international students.
Federal rules say no company can apply for an H-1B visa until the potential employee has a diploma. Because the applications are taken in April, that means none of this year's spring college graduates are eligible to get an H-1B until October 2009.
That means Mr. Singal and others in his position start their careers with a temporary visa known as an OPT, for optional practical training.
Until this year, that created another glitch. Because the OPT lasted only a year, employees had to leave the country or stop working for several months while they waited for their H-1B visas to take effect.
Congress changed that this spring, so that employees can now keep working on their temporary visas until they get their H-1B's.
High-tech companies argue they cannot fill all the highly skilled jobs they have if they are not able to hire foreign-born graduates, but at least one think tank has disputed that argument.
The Urban Institute found that U.S. colleges and universities graduate two to three times as many science and engineering students as the industry hires each year, said institute researcher Harold Salzman.
But Stuart Anderson, executive director of another think tank, The National Foundation for American Policy, said the bulk of those graduates use their science and engineering degrees to go into other fields, which still leaves the high-tech industry with a shortage.
Mr. Anderson said there are two other strong reasons for lifting the H-1B cap.
In a March study, his foundation found that for every H-1B person hired, companies added an average of five other employees to support that person.
And in research he did four years ago, he found that more than half of the top 40 high school students in the Intel Science Talent Search, the nation's premier science competition, were children of parents who had entered the country on H-1B visas. "Those who wonder from where the next generation of U.S. scientists and mathematicians will come should look closely at the small children standing next to their parents as they take the oath of citizenship to the United States of America," Mr. Anderson wrote.
None of that is helping Saurabh Awasthi for the moment.
If no American jobs materialize for him in the next few months, he said, "I won't have any choice but to go back to my country and look for a job," even though that will make it more difficult for him to pay off the loan he took out to cover Carnegie Mellon's $34,000 in tuition and his living expenses.
"If American companies cannot fill up their U.S. offices with talented engineers, computer scientists and IT people," said Carnegie Mellon's Ms. Krieg, "then they will simply move their shop to another country, in which case we'll have almost no benefit."
First Published May 18, 2008 12:00 am