Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs made his mark on Mount Vernon. Many in town made their mark on him, too. Wirfs and his mother, Sarah, took The Gazette on a tour of his hometown, revisiting scenes around what essentially is the one square mile where he grew up. This story is a little about what can hold you back. This is mostly about what moves you forward.

Business

'Practical training' opportunities connect Iowa employers, foreign students before, after graduation

Oishik Sen is an assistant research scientist at the University of Iowa’s IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering facility. Photographed in Sen’s office at the Seamans Center in Iowa City on Monday, July 22, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Oishik Sen is an assistant research scientist at the University of Iowa’s IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering facility. Photographed in Sen’s office at the Seamans Center in Iowa City on Monday, July 22, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

According to Scott Stimart, two of the more difficult types of job candidates to locate in Iowa are those with electrical or computer-science degrees.

They “might be two of the hardest things on the planet to find,” the president of Cedar Rapids-based Genova Technologies added.

“We’re doing jumping jacks trying to get those groups,” he said, noting higher salaries on the East and West Coasts often persuade qualified candidates to locate there.

“When I hear someone say, ‘We’re full,’ I’m not sure what that means because, in Cedar Rapids, there isn’t an employer I work with that doesn’t struggle to find a good, consistent workforce at all education levels.”

One of the workforce pools Genova taps, Stimart noted, are international students with what are known as practical training approvals.

In Iowa, universities can serve as go-betweens for international students with F-1 visas and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, gathering and submitting documents so the students can obtain practical training authorizations for domestic jobs.

With optional practical training, or OPT, approval, undergraduate and graduate international students can work in positions related to their majors for up to one year — either part time while completing coursework or full time after receiving their degrees, so long as they have completed their first academic year.

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Foreign students with STEM degrees also can apply to extend their OPT approvals up to two years longer.

Through curricular practical training, or CPT, approval, international students also can seek employment while taking classes full time, including at paid or unpaid internships or alternative work programs that are an “integral part of an established curriculum.”

Since 2012, the University of Iowa has had 2,119 international students request approvals, while 651 students were approved for 1,347 CPT opportunities over the same time period, the UI said last week.

Among foreign students at Iowa State University, 3,234 obtained OPT approval and 1,652 students were authorized for 2,977 CPT opportunities since 2012.

At the University of Northern Iowa, 68 international students applied or were approved for OPT in 2019 and 17 students currently have CPT authorizations. A UNI representative said the school could not produce reports on past OPT or CPT activity among its foreign students.

In 2019, 356 ISU students were approved to begin OPT while 357 students received approval for CPT, according to data the Gazette received through a request under Iowa’s open records law.

Responding to a request for the same figures, UI representatives estimated they would charge the newspaper $375 to extract and compile the information from several databases. The Gazette has declined to pay the fee.

The two practical training authorizations are similar to work-study programs and designed for international students to work temporarily in the United States, UI spokesman Tom Snee said.

“Iowans benefit from these programs because they provide additional workers, many times in areas where professionals in various fields are underrepresented and where communities have needs that are difficult to fill,” Snee said.

For example, he said, a graduate from the university’s College of Dentistry could seek placement in a rural Iowa community for months while music students could use CPT to work as church organists.

“Basically, the organizations and the communities where the students work benefit from their learning and professional commitment, while the students gain practical, real-world experience in their fields of study,” Snee said.

Jim Spencer, research-and-development vice president and engineering and manufacturing department general manager with Marion-based Freund-Vector, said one of the biggest challenges for his company — a manufacturer of custom machines that turn pharmaceutical powders into pills and tablets — is recruiting engineers with the right skill set.

To date, Freund-Vector has not hired any students with practical training approvals but has hired other international employees in the past, Spencer said.

For the right candidates with those approvals, he said, “We would work with them to provide that support.”

‘A buffer time’

Mir Mulk, 25, said he took advantage of CPT to complete internships before he graduated from the UI with his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in May 2018.

He now works as a software engineer with Digital Artefacts in Iowa City, making use of a STEM extension under his OPT approval.

Mulk, a Bangladeshi native, said he found applying to jobs is no different for students using the practical training authorizations than for permanent U.S. citizens. The only difference, he said, is that foreign students have to ask prospective employers if they’re OK hiring candidates who will need their sponsorship for an H-1B visa when their OPT period runs out.

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H-1B visas let U.S. companies hire foreign workers for a period of three years — extendible to six years — if those workers are submitted into and selected through an annual federal lottery.

For fiscal year 2020, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has capped the number of H-1B approvals at 65,000 regular visas and 20,000 advanced degree exemptions.

In his own experience, Mulk said some local companies he contacted would not hire candidates who eventually would need sponsorship, while others would.

Oishik Sen, 32, currently works in Iowa City as an assistant research scientist with the university’s IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering. From India, Sen graduated with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in December 2016 and since has received a STEM extension under his OPT approval to stay and work through the end of the year.

With months to go until his OPT approval expires, Sen now is waiting to hear back from the U.S. government, after the University of Iowa recently filed his application for an H-1B visa.

Sen said his aim is to continue to working in the United States, with a long-term goal of becoming a scientist in a U.S. Department of Energy lab or a university professor, in this country, Canada or Australia.

Sen spoke positively of his current position through OPT, and said it could help elevate his career.

“Every day, I face a different problem, and we have to brainstorm and work around it. The intellectual challenge keeps me going,” he said.

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OPT “has given me a buffer time to establish myself as a researcher, get my name out there and publish papers, which is definitely a good pedestal when I’m trying to look for more prominent positions.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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