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International Students Face Brighter Employment Prospects

Employment prospects are looking up for international students. Traditionally, foreign graduates have been at a disadvantage in finding good jobs in the U.S. Many felt as though the most attractive positions were with American companies, but graduates on student visas are generally not allowed to accept long-term employment in this country. To work in the U.S., they must be sponsored by an American company. But few companies are willing to incur the high legal expenses of hiring foreign graduates. Now, however, some large American companies are recruiting foreign nationals to staff their overseas operations.

"We now have both international companies and U.S. companies coming here to interview international students for opportunities to return to work in their home countries," says Sandra Arnn, Director of the College of Engineering's Engineering Career Services. That's a big change from just two or three years ago when 95 percent of U.S. companies that came on campus to recruit would not interview students with F1 (student) visas.

At any one time, about 900 of the College of Engineering's students are foreign nationals, Arnn explains. "The numbers are huge, compared to the number of opportunities that exist." In spite of that, after graduation, about 80 percent of foreign nationals try to stay in the United States. Some are attracted by better living conditions and higher wages than their home countries offer. Others just want to stay near friends they've made in a country they enjoy. But almost all end up disappointed.

"All countries require work authorizations," Arnn says. And the United States is no different. Only under specific, strict conditions will the U.S. allow foreign nationals with F1 visas to stay permanently. Companies must prove that no U.S. citizen or permanent resident is available to fill any position they offer to a visiting foreign national. That is an expensive process and usually requires a worker with the type of highly specialized skills that are rarely developed before graduate school. The Intel company's recent searches, for example, required a graduate degree and expertise in VLSI design.

F1 visas do permit students to remain one year after graduation for "practical training" on the job. But many students misread this option as a promise of employment that will start with a year-long training period and end with a permanent job, Arnn says. Few companies, however, are willing to spend an estimated $50,000 to train an employee they probably won't be able to keep. Fewer than 20 companies each year fill these one-year positions with non-resident graduates from the College of Engineering.

The worldwide expansion of manufacturing, however, is offering an attractive alternative for these new engineers, as American and foreign companies scramble to hire foreign-born engineers and scientists to work either their home country, or another whose culture and language they know. "Now, in the global marketplace, things have shifted," Arnn says. "Organizations are coming in saying 'we need to recruit here because we don't have the native talent to fill all of the opportunities we are developing abroad.' And we are usually able to accommodate them. For example, Marion Beachley, the director of our cooperative education and internship program, has been instrumental in developing links for Asian students in their home countries through the Asia Pacific Economic Community Program."

Sandy Arnn with students

Sandra Arnn, Director of Engineering Career Services, describes new opportunities with American companies for international students in their home countries. With her are ECE graduate student John J. B. Liu and ECE senior Liying Julia Chu. (large image)

With the competition for these native workers have come increasingly attractive compensation packages. Most of these opportunities are in Asia, primarily China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Singapore, although some are emerging in South America and Europe, as well.

International students, while at a disadvantage when competing with U.S. citizens for jobs here, have a strong advantage for jobs in their home countries or other countries. "They bring tremendous skills to the table," Arnn says. "They bring not only fluency in the language, but also depth in every aspect of their culture that Westerners don't have." By graduating from a major American university, they have proven both their mastery of English and their ability to adapt to a new culture.

To establish ties early on in a students career, American companies--such as Compaq and Mobile Systems--often hire students for summer co-op positions overseas. And the attributes that attract American companies to these UW graduates also draw expanding foreign firms to the university. Rather than wait for students from their countries to come home, they come to the United States to recruit. Mega-manufacturer PT ASTRA International of Indonesia, for example, recently sent a delegation to four U.S. cities seeking almost 600 recent engineering graduates. "Competition for engineers is very tough," explains company vice-president Paulus Bambang. In a single 1995 recruiting trip, the company hired 14 Indonesian nationals from the UW-Madison College of Engineering.

International students are also a valuable resource for Wisconsin companies--such as Allen Bradley, Case, Deere and Company, Johnson Controls and the Kohler Company--that are expanding into Asia, she says. One Chinese national, for example, was hired to help build the Kohler Company's first manufacturing plant in China. He will live in the U.S., but travel to China frequently. Before coming to UW-Madison as a nuclear engineering and engineering physics PhD candidate, he had helped design and build a Chinese nuclear engineering facility. "He already had the skills to direct that kind of project," Arnn says. "He knew which government agencies to approach, how to get building permits, and how to best acquire construction materials."