With this year’s H-1B visa registration season quickly approaching—the lottery registration window opens on March 6, 2024—we spoke with international student career expert Marcelo Barros about what international students should be doing now to get hired in 2024, what to expect from this year’s H-1B lottery, and what he learned during the 2023 visa season. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Vault: What can international students expect in terms of their odds of securing an H-1B visa this year?
Barros: It’s impossible to predict what the number of H-1B petitions will be for the 2024 cap season. But what we do know is that the number of H-1B registrations reached a crazy new record last year. The government received 780,884 registrations for a total of about 85,000 H-1B visas last year. That was a 61 percent increase in registrations compared to the previous year. That’s such a huge increase, and it looks somewhat abnormal. So, the question is: will the rise continue like it did last year? And what will the effect be of the government’s carefully scrutinizing and eliminating fraudulent, duplicate H-1B registrations on behalf of the same candidates? We will all have to wait and see.
Speaking of that, how do international students feel about last year’s visa lottery and the fact that the H-1B lottery process may not be fair for all applicants?
Several organizations, including The International Advantage, the firm I manage, have made formal requests to the government pushing them to get the H-1B lottery right so the process is fraudulent-free and fair for all involved. We must have faith that the government will correct what needs to be corrected (they said they would) so we can count on a fair process. International students must always be treated with utmost respect, from the moment we start courting them to enroll in our U.S. universities to their very last day (and beyond) in the U.S. The image of the United States is at stake here in the eyes of international students. We must get this right.
So, you’re optimistic that the U.S. government will get it right?
I’m predicting that that we’ll see a decrease in the total number of H-1B applications this year and also see a decrease in the number of duplicate registrations for the same applicant. So, I remain positive. I remain hopeful. I think international students should as well. The focus should always be on getting hired. That’s always what international students should focus on. There’s little value (if any) in worrying about visa odds, or rumors about changes in the H-1B program. For those who believe in contingency plans, it’s perfectly valid to ask the question: If I don’t ever get selected in the H-1B lottery (a scenario that does materialize even for those who try the lottery three times) what will I do?
Do U.S. employers have contingency plans in case they don’t secure H-1B visas for their international workers?
It depends. Some companies do plan ahead and have these types of plans in place given the fact that the odds of selection have recently been against the applicant. It’s almost always case by case, though. But I’d say that large multinational firms, for example, with offices spread all over the world, may be able to transfer an employee to a different location outside of the U.S. if they can’t keep their international hire here. International students may want to inquire about such plans before they accept a job offer. I’ve received hundreds of positive messages from international students over the years along the lines of: “Marcelo, I did not win the H-1B lottery, and this year was my last year to try. But my firm can transfer me to Canada, so I’m happy. I get to keep my job!”
Can you speak about some of the things that U.S. colleges and universities did in 2023 to help their international students secure jobs in the U.S.?
First, it’s important to note that the level of support varies greatly from university to university. So, all international students should leverage every resource available that might give them an edge in the job search process. That means frequent visits to their university career center as well as frequent conversations with their professors about their job search goals and challenges. International students must understand what “out of sight, out of mind” means and make themselves very visible throughout their journey here in the U.S. if they plan on staying and working here after graduation.
That said, we work with about 50 U.S. universities, and I feel that, in general, 2023 was a great year in terms of the level of commitment we experienced from our partner universities to do all they can to help their international students get hired. I’d attribute this renewed enthusiasm to the fact that international student enrollment reached record levels for many universities in 2023.
Another interesting fact from 2023 is that several universities reached out wanting to roll out initial job search training for international students before they arrived in the U.S. I think this is a fantastic idea, and I enthusiastically led many of these virtual programs in 2023. New international students must understand that the internship search for positions at large, well-known firms in the U.S. often happens at the end of summer and early fall. This means there’s really very little time to prepare, and one must be highly organized and prepared to secure a top internship. The summer programs do help with this effort, in my opinion, and, for the past three years, The International Advantage has directly worked with international students from India and China, before they come to the U.S., so they can hit the ground running from a job search standpoint when they arrive, and get hired.
Do you have any other advice or encouraging news for international students who want to work full time here in the U.S. upon graduation this year?
Although the U.S. immigration system may seem unwelcoming at times to international students, I expect to continue to see efforts from the U.S. government to help employers attract and retain individuals who possess capabilities and characteristics that are of interest to them. For example, on October 30, 2023, President Biden issued an Executive Order on the “Safe, Secure and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence.” The order recognizes the significant role of immigrants, international students, and high-skilled temporary visa holders in AI. Immigrants have founded or cofounded nearly two-thirds of the top AI companies in the U.S., and 70 percent of full-time graduate students in AI-related fields are international students.
When I visit U.S. universities and meet with international students, I discuss at length the importance of possessing in-demand skills, and how the international advantages of international students help them quickly get in shape to get hired. It does not just mean AI. When international students possess competitive, in-demand profiles, doors may open for them even beyond the H-1B program.
The truth is there are a ton of amazing, varied job opportunities in the U.S. available for international students who correctly prepare themselves to get hired. It’s almost always a tough path, and this path is almost always filled with uncertainties and frustrations (and, sometimes, tears). But opportunities do exist. In fact, I’m in touch with hiring managers from large, well-known firms and smaller not-well-known firms who tell me: “I’m ready to hire an international student, Marcelo. I’m not afraid of sponsorship. I just need to find the right person.”
Marcelo Barros is the author of The International Advantage: Get Noticed. Get Hired!, which gives international students advice on how to navigate the U.S. work visa system and how to find the job they want. You can learn more about Barros and his work and connect with him via LinkedIn, and be sure to join Barros job search training programs for international students next time he visits your university. Next stops for The International Advantage include: University of Kansas, February 16, 2024; George Washington University, February 23, 2024; and University of Massachusetts Amherst, April 1, 2024 (webinar).