Foreign college students or graduates who intern with U.S. multinational corporations can be potential full-time hires for those firms when the students return home, says an advocate for international exchange programs.
U.S. multinational corporations doing business overseas can increase their chances of attracting local workers in the countries where the companies have operations by hiring foreign post-secondary students or recent graduates as interns for a year, Michael McCarry, executive director of the Alliance for International Education and Cultural Exchange, told attendees of American University’s Intercultural Management Institute Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 14, 2008. Internships are the newest category to the J-1—exchange visitor—visa, which allows those visa holders to work as interns for a U.S. company or organization for up to 12 months, he said.
“The motivation [for adding interns to the J-1 visa] is to get more young people into the United States,” he said. The internship category will appeal to many students and to the American businesses that want to engage broadly in foreign exchanges, he said.
The goal of the Exchange Visitor Program is to increase understanding between U.S. citizens and the people of other countries by means of a variety of educational and cultural exchange programs, the State Department says. In addition to interns, the categories of visitors eligible for J-1 visas are high school students; workers whose companies conduct training in the United States; youths hired for summer jobs; youths participating in summer travel; youths hired as camp counselors or au pairs; and scholars.
While J-1 visa holders working as interns might not be the same as students who enter the United States on Fulbright Scholarships—a U.S. government program that funds foreign students’ master’s degree or doctoral study at U.S. universities—they are all university students and are “elite,” McCarry said. Just by being in the United States, those visa holders are going to improve their English enough to gain “a leg up” in their home economies and be competitive for jobs with multinational corporations doing business in their countries, he added.
Other countries recognize the value of those students, and “there’s a lot of competition out there” to entice them to other locations, he said. The Australians, the British, the Germans and the Canadians—among others—took advantage of the U.S. reaction to Sept. 11 to market their countries to those students as alternative destinations to the United States, he said.
Immediately after Sept. 11 the United States imposed a ban on student visas, and, even when the ban was lifted, visa “barriers” were increased and contributed to the drop in student visa approvals, McCarry said. An example of the barriers was a requirement that visa applicants prove they would return home after their studies ended, he said. Embassy officials who issued the visas could not accept an applicant’s word they would return home; the applicant had to prove it, he said. “The perception that the U.S. wasn’t welcoming, to a certain level, was justified in the early days after Sept. 11,” he adds.
However, despite the marketing campaigns by other countries and the perception the United States is unwelcoming, the growth in numbers of foreign students traveling to the United States has nearly returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels, McCarry said. While more regulations have been added—such as fingerprinting all 10 fingers before a visa is issued—student visas are now easier to get, he said. The growth in J-1 visa approvals is good, but the tighter regulations has the State Department eager to engage new players—such as the business community—as program participants, he said. The State Department can do that by emphasizing that the J-1 visa program not only creates opportunities for companies to widen their pools of potential overseas employees but also enables those firms to commit “small acts of public diplomacy,” he added.
J.J. Smith is editor/manager of SHRM Online’s Global HR Focus Area.