It may surprise you to learn there are 11,600 international college students in Colorado. Of that number, approximately half are in STEM or business programs.
These students are a rich, fresh source of talent, and a great potential workforce that do not require sponsorship nor obligations outside of the ordinary.
Let’s first talk about work status. Most college students who are enrolled in Colorado colleges are here on F1 visas. An F1 visa is issued to international students who are enrolled in a degree program or English Language Program at a U.S. college or university. F-1 students must maintain the minimum course load for full-time student status. They can remain in the U.S. up to 60 days beyond the length of time it takes to complete their academic program, unless they have applied and been approved to stay and work for a period of time under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) Program. Students can apply for OPT after being enrolled for at least 9 months, and can begin employment once they receive their Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from USCIS after they have been enrolled in college for at least one year.
So what is an OPT program? International students in the U.S. in valid F-1 immigration status are permitted to work off-campus in optional practical training (OPT) status both during and after completion of their degree. Employment must be “directly related” to the student’s major, and the student must apply for OPT before completion of all work toward a degree. OPT is permitted for up to 12 months full-time in total. Students can be employed before completing their degree, but a more likely scenario is OPT after completing a degree. In this case, there are certain conditions, which include:
- After completion of a degree, OPT work must be at least 20 hours per week
- All OPT must be completed within 14 months after completion of the degree
Good news regarding STEM! Students who have graduated from a STEM-related program can extend their OPT for an additional 24 months, meaning up to a total of 36 months of OPT.
- Additional Degrees that generally fall under the STEM categories
The position should be related to the student’s course of studies. Employers who hire a student in STEM OPT must be enrolled in the E-Verify program.
In addition to the OPT program, students and employers can mutually benefit from Curricular Practical Training (CPT). CPT is an off-campus employment option for F-1 students when the practical training is an integral part of the established curriculum or academic program. The work experience must be required for the student’s degree, or academic credit must awarded. And yes, students get paid for CPT employment. Prior authorization from the school of the students’ International Student Office and notification to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) is required. These arrangements can take a little longer to set up and can be full- or part-time. However, if the student works full-time on CPT for 12 months or more, they are not eligible for OPT.
So what does this mean for employers? These programs can be very beneficial to employers searching for fresh talent in a tight labor market. They can also help employers who are already working internationally or seeking to expand in global markets. Recent graduates can bring language and cultural competencies, as well as local connections once they return to their home country.
You may be wondering if there is a cost to these programs. The answer is no, other than your typical employee salary and benefits. Employment can end at the end of the OPT or CPT engagement or can continue via a company-sponsored H1B or the appropriate visa. The average cost of a sponsorship is in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.
The student/employee also benefits from these programs. Lobna, a student from Saudi Arabia studying at the University of Northern Colorado, is currently working at the Colorado Department of Higher Education as an OER Research and Policy Intern through the CPT program. She had this to say:
“As an international student, CPT and OPT opportunities are not only beneficial for my learning experience, they are also a prestigious experience. Employers at home are more likely to hire employees who have a diverse background and who can bring with them international experience. Such experience creates international connections that aid in growth and development of a global community.”
If you are interested in connecting with international students, please contact the career services office at the institution nearest you or reach out to Erin McDonnell (email@example.com) at the Colorado Department of Higher Education. She can assist you in making the connection.
The Colorado Department of Higher Education coordinates the StudyColorado program. StudyColorado is an initiative of the Colorado Department of Higher Education and serves as Colorado’s international education consortium.
Students want work experience. Employers want students/employees with relevant education, language skills and even global connections. It’s a win-win.