Goutham Dindukurthi had already turned in a dozen essay questions as part of a job-application process when he received a message: “Sorry, we don’t hire international students.”
This was one of many obstacles he faced as a recently graduated international student seeking work in the U.S. at computer game and animation companies.
Dindukurthi, 24, was one of 18,000 students who traveled from India to study science or engineering in the U.S. in 2008. He won a coveted spot in the Entertainment Technology Masters program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Like many of his compatriots, though, Dindukurthi discovered that the struggling U.S. economy and his immigration status stymied him as he looked for a job after graduation.
“We heard of companies going on a hiring freeze,” he said. “Being Indian made it harder since some of the companies refused to sponsor a working visa.”
Dindukurthi’s plight illustrates a widening problem that’s long been a sore point for chief executives of the U.S. technology industry. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, says U.S. visa curbs on immigrants with special skills in science, math or technology must be overhauled.
“If we don’t, American companies simply will not have the talent to innovate and compete,” Gates said in testimony to the House Committee on Science and Technology on March 12, 2008.
International students are usually hired on H-1B visas, a program that allows companies to employ foreign workers with specialized training.
Restrictions set on the program, fewer employment opportunities and a decrease in financial aid from colleges, have led to the slowest growth in international students studying sciences in the U.S. in years.
The number of visas that can be issued annually through the H-1B program was capped by Congress at 65,000 in 2004 after the expiration of a temporary increase from 2001-2003 that set the limit at 195,000.
Since 2004, technology companies including Microsoft Corp. have pushed Congress to again expand the cap. Gates, in urging lawmakers in 2008 to allow more foreign workers to be hired in the U.S., said the Redmond, Washington-based company had been unable to employ a third of its foreign candidates due to the visa cap.
When the 195,000 cap expired, though, the economy was recovering from the effects of the Sept. 11 attacks, and “there was little interest by Congress” to increase the limit, said Robert Hoffman, vice president for global public policy for Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. His company was among those pressing Congress for a boost.
The program was additionally restricted by the economic stimulus measure enacted in February 2009 that requires companies receiving federal bailout money to make an effort to hire U.S. citizens before those with H-1B visas.
“Companies that have taken stimulus money, or in the banking industries, ones that took TARP money, have limitations on what they could hire for, or whether they could take H-1B employees,” said Farouk Dey, director of the career center at Carnegie Mellon, referring to the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Dey also said it is “virtually impossible” for international students to qualify for the jobs at companies with defense contracts such as Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp.
At Lockheed Martin, citizenship or a permanent residency status is required for many positions, said Chris Williams, a company spokesman.
“There is a fair amount of immigration hurdles,” facing international students applying for H-1B visas, said Brendan O’Brien, director of the international students office at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Because H-1B visa petitions are made on behalf of the interested company, fees are paid by the employer. The petitions must be approved by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship.
“It is a significant commitment on the part of the company to go through the process to sponsor students,” said O’Brien.
A new border security measure signed into law Aug. 13 by President Barack Obama will add $2,000 to fees in visas for companies which have more than half their employees on foreign-work visas.
The base fee for employment-based applications for a U.S. visa is $720 per person, according to the Department of State. Processing the application, medical examinations and obtaining needed documents usually increase the fee.
U.S. colleges accustomed to hosting large numbers of international students in their science and engineering programs are seeing a slowdown in the growth of such enrollments.
A report by the National Science Foundation released in July showed a growth in 2009 of 0.2 percent, or 130 students, in new enrollment by international students in science and engineering fields at U.S. colleges and universities. It grew by 8.6 percent in 2007.
At New York’s Columbia University, international students accounted for 21 percent, or about 7,000, of the student body in the 2008-2009 school year. These students funneled almost $250 million to Columbia in tuition and living expenses, according to a report by its international student office.
“When the economy is hurting,” international students with their new degrees “have the same troubles domestic students do” finding jobs, said Tony Tambascia, director of the international student office at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “They’re forced to think a little more widely about geographic location.”
When given the option of working at Carnegie Mellon or taking an internship abroad, Dindukurthi decided to move to Barcelona, Spain, to serve as a temporary programmer at a game and entertainment company.
His internship ends in September. He said the company has a large base in Europe and he is looking for full-time opportunities there.