Singaporeans in US face hiring slump

Internship hard to come by, as 'extra barrier' of work visas makes international students unattractive to companies

MBA student Cho Wei Hao (above, with his mother Madam S.T. Yeo at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business) will work in the finance industry in New York after he graduates in June. He says industries such as management consulting and finance seem to be open to recruiting international students, but notes that some large corporate firms prefer US citizens. -- PHOTO: CHO WEI HAO PHOTO: CHO WEI HAO

Ms Anthea Piong, a master's student at Georgetown University, is looking for an internship that may open doors to a job when she graduates next year. But even an internship is not easy to come by.

The 24-year-old Singaporean public policy student says that "from experience, friends who are citizens here have a much easier time".

Although the United States labour market has shown signs of improvement - positive job growth, and the unemployment rate dropped to 6.7 per cent last month - it is still more difficult for college graduates to get jobs now than in the past.

"The situation has improved somewhat, but we are in a pretty bad state," says Mr Rory O'Sullivan, policy and research director of Young Invincibles, a non-profit dedicated to expanding the opportunities of young Americans.

A report, released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in January, showed that after the 2007-2009 recession, unemployment for recent college graduates in the US peaked at around 7 per cent.

This is higher than the 3.8 per cent average unemployment rate for recent college graduates between 1990 and the onset of the recession, says Mr Richard Deitz, an assistant vice-president at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, who is one of the authors of the report.

International students have it particularly bad because there is an "extra barrier to overcome" in the form of a work visa, says Mr Dan Beaudry, a recruitment consultant and author of the book Power Ties: The International Student's Guide To Finding A Job In The United States.

There were 250,920 international students in the US in the 2012/2013 school year. A total of 4,558 were from Singapore.

"In an economy like the one we have now, it's often difficult to convince recruiters to bear that cost because there's a perception that there is an abundance of candidates - ones who don't require visas," he adds.

Mr Brian Lim, 29, a Singaporean who is studying for his bachelor's in hotel management at New York University, says he may have to head home if he does not find a job when he graduates next year.

"I already have offers from Singapore, but these are only my very last resort," says Mr Lim, who is now applying for internships in the US and hopes to get overseas exposure before he returns.

While international students worry about having to head home, many American graduates are having to take up jobs for which they are over-qualified. The Fed report says that, in 2012, 44 per cent of recent graduates were in jobs that did not require a degree, up from 34 per cent in 2001.

While the study does acknowledge the general difficulties students have in transitioning to the workforce, what might help graduates is taking the correct major.

The unemployment rate for architecture and construction majors for the period of 2009 to 2011 was 8 per cent, and 7 per cent to 8 per cent for those in liberal arts and social sciences.

On the other side of the spectrum, education and health majors faced unemployment rates of under 4 per cent.

The report said: "Those with majors that provide less technical and more general training, such as leisure and hospitality, communications, the liberal arts, and even the social sciences and business, have not tended to fare particularly well in recent years."

Mr Cho Wei Hao, 29 is one of the lucky ones. The MBA student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business will be working in the finance industry in New York, after he graduates in June.

He says industries such as management consulting and finance seem to be open to recruiting international students, but notes that some large corporate firms prefer American citizens.

Mr Beaudry says this slow job market is not one in which students should "apply online and hope". Instead, they should connect with a company manager directly and "make a compelling value proposition".

As for how long this slump in hiring will last, Mr Deitz tells The Sunday Times that it is something economists are trying to figure out.

"It may be that there is a longer-term trend at work that is reducing the demand for college graduates.

"Or, what we have seen over the past decade may simply reflect the two recessions and jobless recoveries that have come in close succession," he says.

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