US Raises the Bar for Job-Seekers

A land of opportunity, opening its arms to the rest of the world: that is the promise of North America. But today, amid a lingering global economic downturn, foreigners seeking jobs in the U.S. might not feel particularly welcome.

Man walking on classifieds
Photo: Vincent Oliver | Stone | Getty Images
Man walking on classifieds

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate stands at a stubbornly high 8.1 per cent. As a result, the U.S. has tightened its immigration policies.

A bill passed in 2010 sharply raised fees for H1B visas — work permits for temporary specialist workers from foreign countries — as well as L1 visas, which are issued for employees at international companies with offices in the U.S. and abroad.

“There are just not the jobs there used to be,” says John Ballantine, a lecturer at Brandeis University’s International Business School, and an expert in labor economics and corporate finance.

“You start with the general issues of the visa situation and the very high unemployment rate, and you add the fact that there used to be many more entry-level jobs at financial institutions and big manufacturing companies. That has shut down. You’re not seeing job growth.

“It’s not as easy to find positions,” he says. “And as a foreigner or immigrant, you are not at the front of the queue, so it’s going to be tougher for you.”

Tougher perhaps, but not impossible. Even at a time when economic conditions have forced companies to cut labor costs and immigration restrictions remain a hurdle, most businesses still view the creation of a global, flexible workforce as a priority. In response to the financial crisis, companies have reined in the expense associated with expatriate postings by changing the structure of assignments and shortening their duration.

Expatriate packages are very expensive. Most involve costs associated with relocation, housing, incidentals, and transport. Human resources experts say appointing an expatriate to a given job is three or four times more expensive than a local hire.

“The use of expats is on the rise, but we are not seeing a one-size-fits-all approach that we’ve seen in prior economic recoveries,” says Ed Hannibal, leader of the global mobility practice for North America at Mercer Consulting.

Mr. Hannibal says that while traditional expatriate assignments, which last usually between one and five years, still exist, many companies have begun short-term training or projected-based assignments, which last between three and 12 months.

While brief, these assignments afford employees the opportunity to spend time at “a multinational’s headquarters learning and being indoctrinated in the corporate culture”, he says. “It’s about the transfer of knowledge and developing talent.”

These assignments are both cheaper and easier to execute. Because they do not require a full-blown relocation, companies offer them with much leaner packages. These short-term assignments are also more manageable for employees with families.

Short Foreign Assignments

In 2008, Ernst & Young, the accounting firm, introduced short 90-day foreign assignments for both its U.S. and overseas employees. “It is something we introduced after the crisis as the way to offer expat postings in a more cost-effective way,” says Nancy Altobello, Americas vice chair of people at the company.

The company’s global workforce totals about 152,000. Today E&Y has roughly 500 inbound expatriates in the U.S. and Canada working on assignments of various lengths, and about as many North America-based employees working in other locations around the world.

For staff, these postings serve as a personal development, networking, and résumé-building experience. For the company, these assignments improve cross-border business relationships, both among colleagues and outside clients.

“It’s a way to educate people here. When we’re trying to understand how to do business in other countries, it’s very valuable having people from those countries working side-by-side with Americans,” says Ms Altobello, adding that this is particularly true of fast-growing markets such as Brazil.

These assignments also add to the company’s prestige and status in the eyes of clients. “Over the last four years the world has grown a lot smaller,” she says.

“Our clients are more global, and they expect people with global experience. They expect partners who have worked overseas and they want to be working with people who have a global mindset and cultural sensitivity.”

For expatriates, the U.S. remains a highly coveted destination. According to a recent survey by Gallup, the polling and research group, about 13 per cent of the world’s adults – about 640m people – say they would like to leave their native country permanently and of those, nearly one in 30, said they would like to move to the U.S.. It has been the top destination since Gallup started tracking these patterns in 2007.

Which foreign executives have the best shot at getting hired? Those who work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are in high demand. In the finance world, analysts, accountants, auditors, and financial managers are sought after, especially those foreign workers with international credentials.

The title of Certified Public Accountant and an MBA is a winning combination. Prior global experience and language skills also make workers attractive to multinational corporations.

“Many U.S. finance executives report staffing as a primary challenge so there is a real demand for talent,” says Megan Fitzgerald, an international career coach who works with expatriates. “Many also report that their biggest challenges are addressing issues around regulations and compliance.”

She says expatriates versed in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), which the vast majority of U.S. companies use, are well positioned to find jobs.

“Demonstrating a history of controlling costs and doing more with less will also make you a compelling candidate,” she says.

Depending on the nature of the role, experience in financial statements, variance analysis, annual and strategic planning, and forecasting are highly valued skills, according to Ms Fitzgerald. Expertise in financial and operational reporting, asset and inventory management, and payroll and tax is also key.

The bulk of expatriate hiring in the U.S. occurs on the coasts, where clusters of multinationals are headquartered. New York is where most expatriates find jobs; other big U.S. cities, including Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles, also see significant expatriate hiring. Chicago, Houston and Dallas are popular destinations, too.

But there are other pockets offering opportunities outside the urban areas. In Connecticut, for example, the population of Stamford, a city best known for investment banking and hedge funds, is currently 39 per cent foreign-born, the highest percentage in its history. By comparison, New York’s foreign-born population is 37 per cent, according to the latest figures.

Other cities in Connecticut also draw sizeable foreign talent, including Hartford, which is considered the insurance capital of the U.S., as well as New Haven, home of Yale University.

“We see real opportunities to work with folks from all over the world,” says Catherine Smith, commissioner of the state’s department of economic and community development.

“In order to be successful today you need to think globally in your approach. We need them here; we want them here. We see it as a step in the wrong direction to be protectionist. We need to think more broadly in this global economy.”