This week Jeff Towns, Executive Director of the Global Talent Retention Initiative of Michigan writes about potential changes to Optional Practical Training (OPT) that may benefit international students and how they are welcomed and invited to stay in Michigan

One Pro-immigrant State’s Approach

With over 29,000 international students studying in Michigan in 2013, the state ranks 9th in the U.S. in its total population of international students. Michigan’s state leadership also places a very high importance on both the recruitment of international students to its colleges and universities and in retaining these students once they graduate. In fact, Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder comments often about being the most pro-immigrant governor in the U.S. and opened an Office for New Americans in 2014. He also requested that the federal government designate 50,000 employment-based (EB) visas over five years as a pilot program to attract high-skilled, entrepreneurial, legal immigrants who commit to living and working in Detroit to contribute to the city’s economic growth.

Michigan is also the first state in the country with an agency dedicated to facilitating the connection of international student graduates with employers – especially those in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) so valued by Michigan’s booming advanced automotive manufacturing and technology sectors. The Global Talent Retention Initiative of Michigan (GTRI) exists to educate employers about the importance of international student talent and how to incorporate highly educated global talent into their workforce through post-study work authorisation like Optional Practical Training (OPT).

In his recent executive actions on immigration President Obama has included a proposed change to the existing regulations for OPT, it states…

“Work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to develop regulations for notice and comment to expand and extend the use of optional practical training (OPT) for foreign students, consistent with existing law.”

While U.S. Congress is unlikely to pass any immigration laws in the near future that would expand H1-B temporary work visas beyond the current cap of 65,000 (85,000 if the advance degree exemptions are included), changes in the OPT regulations could open many doors for international students seeking post-graduation employment in the U.S. Most legal experts agree that changes to the OPT regulations is in the purview of the President’s authority as a regulatory change and would not require congressional approval.

Such a change would greatly benefit both international students and employers. For some American employers, the current 12 months of OPT available to most F1 students (29 months for those with a 17-month STEM extension) is not long enough to justify the time and expense of hiring and training an international student, particularly if there are English language barriers. Getting a new hire trained and indoctrinated to the culture and policies of an organisation typically takes at least 12 months, leaving just 17 months with the current STEM extension to recoup their investment in a new employee and/or to file an H1-B sponsorship petition on their behalf. Employers also have high-legal costs in preparing and filing for an H1-B temporary work visa and must also participate in the E-verify system developed by the Department of Homeland Security. Lengthening the current 17-month STEM extension would allow employers to recoup their training investment in the employee and have multiple opportunities to apply for an H1-B given the current cap restrictions and subsequent lottery policy.  

In spite of some employers’ reluctance to hire international students, data collected by GTRI from its participating schools shows a 108 per cent increase in OPT hiring trends by Michigan employers in just three years. This significant and rapid increase signals improved awareness by employers in Michigan as to the value that international students bring to an organisation. Many of the employers hiring students on OPT are companies with a global footprint who see great value in multilingual STEM talent who can help to build cultural bridges for their businesses abroad and convey and facilitate the understanding of highly technical information to non-English speaking clients and business partners.

As the American economy rebounds in a post-recession era of rapid growth, few places feel the impact of STEM talent shortages more than Michigan due, in part, to a booming worldwide demand for high-tech automotive products and advanced engineering design and software. Automotive and advanced manufacturing has gone very hi-tech, and Michigan is viewed by many as the future silicon valley of the Midwestern U.S., evidenced by the recent arrival of some of the largest global technology companies in the world. While we may not see changes in the number of allowable H1-B temporary work visas for some time, students and employers should pay close attention to regulatory changes in Optional Practical Training. OPT is a viable pathway to securing longer-term employment for students. Changes that soften employer barriers to using OPT as an option is a step in the right direction.

With its rapid tech sector growth and high demand for the best and brightest talent that the world has to offer, Michigan is in need of as many highly educated and skilled employees as it can get. International students are warmly welcomed here and invited to live, work and play in a friendly state that offers great opportunity for immigrants and students alike. Michigan, like many states, is awakening to a new era of global talent competition. Its many public and private pro-immigrant agencies advocate each day for changes in federal policies that would lay down the welcome mat for all who we educate on our shores, and also for the many who are turned away due to outdated Federal laws that fail to take advantage of the new world economy.  

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