December 2023
Kris Olson, Jonas Costa, Jen Guyer-Wood
Left to right: Kris Olson, Concordia College director of the Career Center; Macalester alum Jonas Costa; Jen Guyer-Wood, Macalester College executive director of career exploration

An aging workforce, a global pandemic and byzantine immigration laws have created the perfect storm of worker shortages across Minnesota. The lack of readily available employees has forced companies to be creative in attracting potential employees to the state in order meet their needs.

International students coming to Minnesota to attend private colleges can help, with around 1,800 currently enrolled. Consider examples from two of the colleges with significant numbers of international students, Macalester College in St. Paul and Concordia College in Moorhead.

At Concordia College, international students are being prepared to enter the workplace and be productive employees from start, explained Kris Olson, director of the Career Center. These valued students are “highly motivated to succeed and enrich our campus by bringing diverse viewpoints and life experiences.”

International students are encouraged to gain work experience in on-campus jobs and the relevant skills acquired from these jobs can help them gain off-campus jobs. They’re also introduced to Handshake, the job-posting platform that enables students to search for open positions.

In addition, all students are required to have two Pivotal Experiences in Applied Knowledge (PEAK). Olson said these integrated learning experiences help them tackle complex problems and gain skills they can apply to the world of work.

To demystify the hiring process, the Career Center created a fact sheet that informs employers there are very few differences between hiring domestic students and international students while attending college, along with the advantages of hiring international talent. The Career Center has also participated in local events with business groups to promote the value of international students.

Macalester College also draws a lot of international students, with 288 enrolled this fall. Jen Guyer-Wood, executive director of career exploration, believes international students, and particularly those who earn science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees, can be part of the solution to Minnesota’s workforce shortage.

Many employers mistakenly believe the only way to keep their international student employees longer than 12 months is through winning the lottery to apply for a H-1B visa, the standard way for many international workers to gain visas to work in the United States, Guyer-Wood said. The H-1B visa allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers in specialty occupations. Due to high demand for a limited number of these visas, a lottery system is used to determine which applications are accepted.

But the STEM optional practical training (OPT) is easier and no cost to employers, she said. Students can apply for STEM OPT even before they’re hired, so employers know their international student employees can legally work here for at least three years.

“International students with STEM degrees can get a 24-month extension to their original 12-month work permit through the STEM optional practical training (OPT) extension without meeting additional visa requirements,” Guyer-Wood said. “This is a great deal for employers, who don’t need to worry about students not being able to work here for more than 12 months.”

Guyer-Wood believes international students are a hidden resource and a great way for employers to add excellent employees. When they graduate, international students bring unique perspectives and possess cultural competencies, critical thinking, problem solving and language skills, she said. Unfortunately, many employers perceive the process as just too difficult. Macalester’s summer internship programs provide an intensive process to prepare international students and help them find internship opportunities, Guyer-Wood said.

Jonas Costa’s experience in looking for a job highlights some of the difficulties international students face. A 2023 Macalester graduate with degrees in math and computer science, Costa grew up in Brazil and came to Minnesota to experience a small college in a big city.

For the last six months he has worked for a Minnesota software developer, writing code and developing software for clients. Costa really enjoys his job and collaborating with others. He’s passionate about helping people have a great experience with technology while being based in Minnesota.

However, his path to successful employment was difficult. Feeling well prepared due to his classwork and helpful professors, he started applying for positions the summer before his senior year. Many companies turned him down when they discovered he was an international student.

“Employers don’t understand how easy it is to hire international students. It’s not very expensive and doesn’t require a lot of paperwork,” says Costa. “I offered to explain the process, but many employers weren’t interested due to the impression that it’s too difficult to hire international students and didn’t want to spend the time to learn.” He also found that some employers were concerned with the three-year limit with the STEM-OPT program, even though there are no guarantees any employee will stay that long.

He did land a position with his current employer, where staff were willing to learn how the process works. Costa can stay in the United States and work for a year, and thanks to STEM-OPT he can receive a two-year extension for a total of three years.

“Minnesota has a great opportunity to really shore up its workforce by capitalizing on international students,” Guyer-Wood said. “We have a history of bringing in people of different cultures, and this is a great opportunity for our state.”

By Tom Brandes