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What Employers Need to Know About the J-1 Visa for Interns and Trainees

A group of business people in a meeting room raising their hands.

​The Trump administration has indicated that it may eliminate the trainee and internship categories under the J-1 visa or impose new requirements on employers using the program.

While the fate of the visa is still in flux, this article outlines a few basic things about the program—and specifically the intern and trainee categories that thousands of U.S. employers use for international talent pipelining, training and onboarding—that employers should know. Tomorrow, we will feature Part 2 of this article, which examines employer responsibilities when sponsoring J-1 trainees and interns and how to work with an outside sponsoring organization.

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Versatility, Flexibility Top Benefits for Employers

About 300,000 foreign visitors from 200 countries travel to the Unites States to study and work every year via the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program. About 25,300 came as interns and 10,700 as trainees in 2016. It's ostensibly a public diplomacy program meant to facilitate cultural exchange between the United States and other nations, but certain categories such as intern and trainee make it an attractive option for employers.  

"The J-1 program has become a critical piece in the mobility portfolios for multinational employers to be able to train their foreign talent," said Mike Jackson, manager of exchange visitor programs at the Council for Global Immigration (CFGI), an affiliate of the Society for Human Resource Management. "It not only allows foreign employees to gain new skills but fosters collaboration with their U.S. co-workers, which can last long after the program ends."

J-1 trainees and interns also help build the employer's brand abroad, said Jennifer Clinton, president and CEO of Cultural Vistas, a nonprofit exchange organization and J-1 visa sponsor based in New York City and Washington, D.C. "Sometimes a company is looking to expand into other markets and wants to develop the local talent," added Karen Faucette, director of business development for Cultural Vistas. "Participants can come to the U.S., get trained, return to their home country and positively contribute to the employer. Many organizations are utilizing international internship programs to develop a talent pipeline for overseas offices."

J-1 visas in the trainee/intern categories are most commonly used to:

  • Advance employees abroad through rotational, leadership development and training programs.
  • Onboard new hires of foreign branches or partners.
  • Train employees on new technology or products or learn about different aspects of the organization's business.
  • Support opening new facilities overseas.
  • Assist with transferring knowledge between organizations involved in joint ventures.
  • Establish relationships with foreign universities to help facilitate research, internship or co-op opportunities.

April Peck helps manage industrial manufacturer Ingersoll-Rand's graduate training program, held in La Crosse, Wis. The program lasts about 20 weeks, twice a year, and is made up of employees from all over the world, including U.S. workers and those on J-1 visas.

Five days a week, about 10 J-1 trainees join 30 of their U.S. colleagues for technical classroom training on HVAC products. The entire group—including the U.S. workers—spend the weekends participating in cultural events like apple picking, baseball games or visiting local waterfalls.

"Once J-1 attendees finish the program, they return to their home country and they work with the engineering and sales teams at overseas facilities to increase sales and product knowledge," Peck said. "They're able to reach out to our customers and sell the products better."

The flexibility of the J-1 compared with other employment visa categories also makes it an enticing option for employers. "There is no cap on the total number of J-1 visas administered each year, as there is for the H-1B and other popular visas," Faucette said. "It's also open to many different occupations and levels of talent, rather than specific specializations or education levels." The application process is also less intensive than for other popular employment visas and doesn't require completing and submitting a labor condition application or immigration petition. Spouses and dependents may join a J-1 visa holder and, in most cases, are also eligible to apply for work authorization after arrival.

Key Requirements, Prohibitions

To access J-1 trainees or interns, an employer must either become a State Department-designated sponsor as some large employers like Disney, Exxon Mobil, Ingersoll-Rand and Microsoft have done, or work with a sponsoring organization like Cultural Vistas or CFGI.

J-1 internship programs can last up to 12 months. Interns must be currently enrolled in and pursuing studies at a foreign college or university or be recent college graduates within one year of graduation prior to starting the program.

J-1 visas for trainees are good for a maximum of 18 months. Trainees must have a degree or professional certificate from a foreign post-secondary academic institution and have at least one year of prior related work experience in their occupational field outside the U.S. or have five years of related work experience outside the U.S.

J-1 trainees and interns can work in most occupations, but there are a few prohibited fields. In addition, work duties cannot entail more than 20 percent clerical work or come from staffing firms.

Additionally, J-1 training and internship programs "must not be used as substitutes for ordinary employment or work purposes; nor may they be used under any circumstances to displace American workers," according to the Department of State. These programs are also not designed to allow for cheap labor. The treatment and compensation of all J-1 visa holders must be comparable to U.S. workers in respective positions and must meet all federal and state wage and labor laws.

This is where sponsoring organizations like CFGI and Cultural Vistas play a critical role. Clinton said some of the things they do to prevent noncompliance include:

  • Reviewing the employer's intern-to-full-time-staff ratio to ensure there is sufficient staff to fulfill business needs and to train participants.
  • Ensuring that the intern has an onsite supervisor who can provide one-on-one guidance. 
  • Inquiring about the recruitment methods that employers use to ensure that the positions are not the same full-time positions they have listed on their careers site.
  • Emphasizing the cultural exchange aspect of the program.

In addition, J-1 trainees and interns must speak English and be able to financially support themselves for their entire stay in the U.S. Visa holders and their dependents must have health insurance prior to arrival and for the duration of their visit. If trainees or interns will be paid by a U.S. employer, they will likely need a Social Security number to pay federal, state and local income taxes. Visa holders are generally exempt from paying Medicare, Social Security or federal unemployment taxes, however, so employers are not required to pay any matching contributions.

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