U.S. Jobs for International MBAs?

In the fall of 2007, Megha Agrawal left India and came to the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business full of energy and optimism. Like many international students, she was looking to take advantage of a job market hyper-friendly to MBAs from top schools. Megha originally came to the U.S. for her undergraduate studies and joined Citibank in its global capital markets technology group. Her purpose in attending business school was to position herself for greater opportunities within global organizations like Citi and initially, her interest post-graduation was management consulting.

After her first year, Megha did her summer internship in Citibank’s investment banking group and came back focusing her full-time job search on investment banking again.

Suddenly, with the collapse of the financial markets in 2008-09, two things happened. First, the largest banks scaled back or cut entirely their full-time hiring. Second, the majority of the boutique investment banks did not sponsor H1B visas. As Megha recalls, “I was left with limited options and the train had left the station to transition to recruiting for management consulting. I waited too long to widen my search or change focus.”

Megha’s journey is a great lesson for non-U.S. work-authorized individuals who want to work in the U.S. after getting an MBA.

Mumbai and Madrid. Sao Paolo and Stockholm. Tokyo and Tel Aviv. Johannesburg and Jakarta. Berlin and Bogota. Paris and Prague. Abu Dhabi and Amsterdam. Moscow and Mexico City. If these or other international locations are the place you consider home, you are among the 30% to 45% of each MBA class at top schools from outside the U.S.  And, if you are in this group, I bet you are asking yourself and others: “What is the hiring climate like right now for internationals?”

No doubt, you are excited about attending a top U.S. business school.  But also you are nervous about employment prospects. Job opportunities for top MBAs is improving from the market that Megha experienced. Yet, if you want to stay in the U.S. to work and require sponsorship, there is a lot of uncertainty. Business schools don’t formally report the percentage of international students who remain in the U.S. to work, though Harvard Business School notes on its website that about 50% of their international students take positions in the U.S.

Today’s Climate for International Students

Business schools actively seek international students out. A diverse talent pool is great for MBA programs and companies by providing a wealth of experience and varied perspectives. With the economic downturn, however, we have seen less walk than talk about this view by hiring organizations.  Let me share a couple of examples:

  • Impact of the economy – For some companies, the recession motivated a change to visa sponsorship.  Yes, it is a supply and demand issue, as well as a cost issue.  Then, there was TARP, where companies made decisions to forgo sponsorship based on the interpretation of compliance criteria with the U.S. government’s bailout.
  • Long-term progression – A management consulting firm recently stopped sponsoring visas after an internal study determined that non-U.S. employees had lower retention rates and less progression to the firm’s top ranks.
  • Professional development – Another organization looked for employees who were globally mobile and found that among recent hires, those from outside the U.S. were less willing to relocate to non-U.S. locations because they wanted longer-term U.S. work experience.  This made is more difficult to achieve some of the strategies of the global rotation program and the professional development plans for leaders at the company.
  • Global knowledge – One of the most selective MBA rotational programs had a track record of hiring international students. The company views international recruits as a huge asset to serve customers who were global and wanted people who could speak multiple languages and build multi-cultural relationships.

What I conclude from these and other examples is that human capital decisions are firm specific. Each organization adopts a hiring strategy that fits its business strategy and distinctiveness. In the current environment, hiring strategies also can be very dynamic.  For example, for fall full-time hiring, firms might recruit students who require sponsorship. But when they return in the spring for internships or later post a position, this may change.

Does this volatility and ambiguity suggest that international students should avoid a U.S. business school? Absolutely not.  But it does mean that you want to go in with both eyes wide open and be ready to adapt.

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