Though the University of Michigan and Michigan State University have the eighth and ninth highest number of international students among educational institutions nationally, keeping that talent in the state is a challenge - and not because the graduates themselves don't want to stay.
Athena Trentin understands why better than most. After accepting her position as director of the Global Talent Retention Initiative
(GTRI), she faced objections to her work from an unexpected source.
"My own father told me when I started this job that he didn't agree with what I was doing," Trentin says. A union business agent, he saw her efforts to secure jobs for global talent Michigan as a threat to his members.
Trentin recalls saying to him, "Do your members have master's degrees in computer engineering? This how we're going to create jobs for your members. They are going to create new products that will require factories where your members will get jobs.
"Then he was like, 'Oh, okay. And now he's cool with it and proud of me, of course."
Convincing businesses around the state of the same logic and making it easier for international talent to stay in Michigan after graduation is at the heart of what GTRI does. Considering the state currently has 25,000 international students, those students make up between 40 to 60 percent of the enrollment in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs in state universities and immigrants are six times more likely than Americans to create jobs in the STEM fields, the organization's efforts have the potential to produce some pretty dramatic results.
Why is the effort to keep international talent in the US particularly important to Southeastern Michigan?
Michigan is not known to have a very large immigrant population, but we do. When you go to San Francisco and New York, it's pretty obvious where the immigrants are. We don't have that. We have Corktown and Mexican Town, but we also have a huge population of Indian in Novi and Canton, and Japanese in the Northville area. Not a lot of people know that.
These immigrants who come in and start businesses, they start out as international students, and they start their businesses within 13 years of arriving in the US. For every 100 H-1B visas issued [a non-immigrant visa allowing temporary employment in specialty occupations], 183 jobs are created. Even though they're not starting their own businesses at that stage, they are already creating jobs.
What kinds of jobs does GTRI aim to help international talent secure?
GTRI is focusing on is filling the talent gap we have right now. This is an immediate solution to a problem that is preventing us from competing with other states and other counties. Only 25 percent of Michigan adults have a bachelor's degree, and the jobs that are growing really fast right now are the engineering and IT jobs.
What are some of the challenges that global graduates face when trying to find internships and jobs in Michigan?
Many employers who are having a hard time filling jobs still aren't comfortable with the process [of hiring international employees] or don't want to deal with it, or haven't had that mental shift yet. International students get so frustrated when they go to 15 tables at a career fair and at 11 or 12 they'll get turned away.
There is also a huge cultural difference [for international students] in how you sell yourself to employers in the US. There are different communication styles, and what is expected is different. University career offices don't have a lot of resources for the cultural stuff, so the help to get them prepared is really minimal.
Does anti-immigrant vitriol play a role in the struggle to get these students to stay here?
It does, to a certain extent, right now. I don't think it's a discrimination that comes from hatred. I think it's more of a protective ignorance. I don't want to even use ignorance as a negative word, but it's just a lack of knowledge, of experience. We have a huge percentage of unemployed people in Michigan, and I agree with that. But the majority of jobs in the fastest growing areas are those for which we don't have the talent to fill. We need to find a way to fill those jobs.
I'm not blaming anybody out there because I understand where they're coming from. I hope they can open their minds enough to understand where [GTRI] is coming from, and it want it to succeed because they want o go back to work.
What does GTRI do to help retain international talent in Michigan?
Our big goal is to, of course, fill all of these positions that employers are having a hard time filling. It's economic development through the development top international talent. We've started a Global Opportunity Employer
(GOemployer) program to identify employers who are open to hiring international students and help make the process more efficient and easier.
For the international students, we work with universities to develop a program to help them prepare international students for the Michigan job search.