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Employers Need Skilled STEM Graduates. Here’s Why International Students Can Meet the Demand.

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A group of international students at a U.S. university collaborate over a circuit board and keyboard

U.S. News Global Education and Shorelight, both leaders in helping international students apply to and succeed at U.S. universities, teamed up to examine supply and demand of STEM jobs, OPT trends, and the high ROI degrees that are bridging the demand gap.

In the next eight years, U.S. jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (aka STEM) are expected to grow 10.5%, to more than 11 million. This equates to adding more than 1 million positions between 2020 and 2030. Experts suggest there are not currently enough qualified STEM degree graduates to meet employment demands.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which measures labor market activity, predicts that STEM occupations are projected to grow 1.4 times faster than non-STEM occupations (10.5% STEM vs. 7.5% non-STEM) between 2020 and 2030.

One solution for U.S. tech companies looking to meet the growing need? International students with advanced STEM degrees.

“There are more jobs than there are Americans to fill, especially in high-demand fields such as STEM,” says Shelley Landry, senior director of Government Relations at Shorelight, a partner of U.S. News Global Education.

“As America faces a labor shortage, U.S. companies have been clear that increasing the STEM talent pool to include highly trained international students is one of the key ways we can continue to strengthen our economy and remain a global leader in science and technology innovation,” she says.

Bar graph showing projected growth by job category for STEM and non-STEM jobs

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 2021

Drivers Behind STEM Degree Popularity, Demand and the Supply Gap

What is driving the increased demand in STEM jobs? Consider the phone or computer that you’re using to read this article. Or cybersecurity teams combatting the hacks making daily headlines. Or IoT, the internet-of-things acronym that makes your smart home smart. Not to mention the pandemic-related drivers behind everything from agile biotech solutions, online shopping, and supply chain management.

“The economic shift from manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy is creating more demand for high-skilled workers with STEM degrees,” says Lisa Witt, Career Services manager, Shorelight Academic Affairs. “The role of a growing digital economy bolsters demand for these technical occupations.”

As for the shortfall: the biggest reason for the supply gap in qualified STEM workers is the declining birth rate in the U.S., especially since the recession of 2008, when young couples delayed starting a family.

In her role as Career Services manager, Witt works directly with international students on campus to secure jobs and internships at U.S. companies – and knows they are uniquely qualified to fill the demand gap.

“International students should use a strength-based approach for their job search,” she says. “Remember that [they] offer U.S. employers unique advantages, such as speaking multiple languages, [having] cross-cultural skills, awareness of global business practices, and the ability to adapt to new situations.”

What Is the Universe of STEM-designated Degrees?

International students looking to enter a STEM field, and wanting to further a career at a U.S. company after graduation, will want to strongly consider a “STEM-designated” degree, which qualifies candidates for STEM-OPT status.

Optional Practical Training, or OPT, allows international students with an F-1 visa to work in the U.S. for up to one year after graduation; STEM-OPT status allows for an additional 24 months, or up to three years total.

Read more about the difference between CPT and OPT >

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees visas and immigration, determines the STEM-Designated Degree Program List, also known as the “STEM List.”

The STEM List includes the following major categories:

  • Biological and Biomedical Sciences
  • Business
  • Computer Science and Information Sciences
  • Education
  • Engineering
  • Health
  • Mathematics and Statistics
  • Multi-interdisciplinary Studies
  • Physical Sciences & Applied Sciences

A color chart showing all STEM fields

Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2022

Under the Biden administration, the DHS added 22 disciplines to the STEM list in January 2022.

A table showing STEM fields newly eligible for OPT as of 2022

Computer Science & Information Sciences

  • Cloud Computing
  • Human-centered Technology Design

Multi-Interdisciplinary Studies

  • Anthrozoology
  • Climate Science
  • Data Science, General
  • Data Visualization
  • Financial Analytics
  • Earth Systems Science
  • Mathematics and Atmospheric/Oceanic Science
  • Economics and Computer Science
  • Data Analytics, General
  • Data Analytics, Other
  • Business Analytics
  • Mathematical Economics
  • Environmental Geosciences

Other

  • Bioenergy
  • Forest Resources Production and Management
  • Forestry, General
  • Industrial and Organizational Psychology
  • Geographic Information Science and Cartography
  • Social Sciences, Research Methodology and Quantitative Methods

“Post-graduation work experience is important to the vast majority of international students,” says Landry. “We are pleased to see President Biden keeping his word and prioritizing education for international students and supporting U.S. companies seeking skilled STEM workers. President Biden also quickly rolled back proposed policy changes that would make it harder for international students to study and work in the U.S., such as shortening F-1 visa validity, reductions in H-1B visa approvals and re-opening the U.S. to international students during the pandemic through the National Interest Exemptions.”

STEM Degree ROI: Salary & Security

When investing in a degree, students should consider its potential return on investment, or ROI. In the U.S., candidates with STEM degrees command more than double the salary than that of their non-STEM counterparts.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median salary for STEM degrees for STEM degree workers is $89,780, vs. $40,020 for non-STEM occupations.

Bar chart showing median annual salary for STEM and non-STEM fields

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 2021

Within STEM occupations, the degree track you choose can equate to a $20,000-plus difference in salary.

Here’s how the salaries for broader categories of STEM-designated occupations break down:

2020 National Employment Matrix title Median annual wage, 2020(1)
Business and financial operations occupations $72,250
Computer and mathematical occupations $91,350
Architecture and engineering occupations $83,160
Life, physical, and social science occupations $69,760

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020

Factoring in the ROI of a master’s degree, salaries jump significantly. For example, the median salary for computer and information research scientists with an advanced degree was $126,830 in 2020.

Mind the Gap: STEM-OPT Policy and Trends

Recognizing supply and demand gap for talented STEM workers, OPT approvals in the U.S. increased 8.2x (or 723%) between 2007 and 2017. Peaking in 2017, approvals were just above 204,000, before dipping to 176,836 in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, travel restrictions and a change in immigration policies.

Landry says this number is expected to rebound in 2022 and beyond as the pandemic comes under control and the Biden administration rolls back Drumpf policy decisions.

Total OPT Students in the U.S. by Year

Line chart showing OPT students in the U.S. by year

Source: Shorelight analysis of OPT authorizations by year

“As the U.S. begins to see the pandemic recede, there is every indication that students are returning and businesses and opportunities abound for international students,” says Landry.

“With President Biden’s renewed commitment to international students, the 2021/22 fall semester resembled 2019 enrollment numbers,” she says. “The U.S. actually saw a 4% increase between enrollments and OPT. We believe the U.S. is back on track and international students are once again looking to the U.S. for our leading role in higher education.”

And more good news for international students pursuing STEM degrees in the U.S.: STEM-OPT placements as a percentage of overall OPT placements are the growing exponentially year over year, increasing eight-fold in the last 12 years. In 2008, STEM accounted for just 4% OPT approvals; in 2020, STEM-OPT jumped to 34% of all OPT approvals.

Increase of STEM-OPT

Bar chart showing increase of OPT driven by STEM fields

Source: Shorelight analysis of OPT authorizations by year

On the Right Track: Looking Beyond Computer Science

“When considering a degree track, I encourage a student to look at their interests, as well as what the world needs,” says Witt. “I have seen students choose a degree they are really interested in, get to their university, and then hear, ‘Oh, international students cannot get jobs with that degree, so you should switch to computer science.”

“Students who major in computer science often have no desire to code software or do IT,” she continues. “In this case, it helps to talk to an education counselor or career services center about degree tracks and specializations. You may find yourself more passionate about high-growth sectors like artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, or robotics. You can also research CS-related degrees recently added to the STEM-OPT List, such as data science, data visualization, data analytics, and business analytics, which have a lot of job opportunities as well.”

The issue for many students is computer science degree tracks can be limited and are highly competitive. Broadening your scope of computer science, and understanding that the field goes beyond coding and software development, can lead to higher job satisfaction and the likelihood of landing a more in-demand position upon graduation.

“While it may be true that there is a demand for computer science majors, there is a demand for all STEM majors,” continues Witt. “The key is the strategy in how and where to look for the jobs.”

Exploring STEM Degrees with Strong Outcomes

STEM-related occupations — especially those that branch out from computer science — are leading the way for in-demand jobs.

According to the “Future of Jobs Survey 2020” by the World Economic Forum, the top 10 jobs with increasing demand are:

  1. Data analysts and scientists
  2. Artificial intelligence (AI) / machine learning (ML) specialists
  3. Big data specialists
  4. Digital marketing and strategy specialists
  5. Process automation specialists
  6. Business development professionals
  7. Digital transformation specialists
  8. Information security analysts
  9. Software / application developers
  10. Internet of Things (IoT) specialists

Source: “Future of Jobs Survey 2020” World Economic Forum

Information security/cybersecurity analyst (1), software developer (2) and data scientist (3) also appear in the top 10 of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Technology Jobs list (2022).

Lists like these can serve as helpful research sources for international students. Take Htein Linn Thar, a Myanmar native who was considering a career change from electrical engineering.

“When I was planning to come and study in the U.S., I carried out some research on which professions are most in-demand and discovered that data scientists are among the highest-demand professions,” says Thar. “As an engineer, I have some background knowledge on mathematics, statistics and programming. I thought it would be easier for me to transition to the data science field and it would be good for my future job opportunities in the U.S.”

His calculation paid off — Thar enrolled at the University of the Pacific and received his master’s degree with a specialization in data science in 2021. With the help of his designated school official (DSO) at Pacific, he applied for STEM-OPT status and now lives in New York City, where he works in data analytics at Tata Consultancy Services.

Top Employers Want Top STEM Talent

“American businesses have long recognized that well-educated workers and entrepreneurs who attend and graduate from U.S. colleges and universities are valuable to the economy,” says Landry. “OPT for international students has proven to be a highly successful program – retaining the top talent from across the world benefits American businesses and consumers.”

Fortune 500 companies, award-winning hospitals, financial firms and high-ranking universities lead the list of top STEM-OPT employers in the U.S., with tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM and Microsoft leading the way, hiring thousands of talented international graduates.

Top 200 Employers for OPT and STEM OPT 2019

Top 200 Employers Number of Students Participating in OPT or STEM OPT % Students STEM OPT
Amazon 2,813 86.42%
Google 1,123 85.04%
AZTech Technologies LLC 1,057 34.82%
Deloitte 822 82.24%
Microsoft Corporation 817 85.68%
Intel Corporation 790 87.34%
Integra Technologies LLC 721 79.75%
Facebook 708 86.44%
Apple, Inc 463 81.64%
Walmart 441 81.18%
Veridic Solutions 424 72.41%
IBM 402 92.79%
Randstad 383 65.01%
PricewaterhouseCoopers 380 81.05%
Marlabs, Inc 373 76.41%
Goldman Sachs 363 82.92%
Ernst & Young 360 77.22%
Robert Half 358 32.40%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 345 66.09%

Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security Report on Top 200 Employers for OPT and STEM OPT Students

Campus-employer relationships and OPT assistance is another discussion that students should have with education counselors about prospective colleges.

For instance, a number of U.S. News Global Education/Shorelight universities outrank top Ivy League schools like Harvard University (136) as top STEM-OPT employers (DHS, 2019).

U.S. News Global Education/Shorelight universities making the top STEM-OPT employers list include:

  • Johns Hopkins University (28)
  • University of California, Los Angeles (41)
  • University of California, Berkeley (56)
  • University of Illinois Chicago (77)
  • University of Utah (107)
  • Florida International University (128)
  • University of Central Florida (190)
  • University of Kansas (197)

Explore all U.S. News Global Education/Shorelight universities >

With STEM Degrees, Look at Rankings and Outcomes

Many international students are drawn to top-20 engineering and computer science master’s programs such as MIT or UC Berkeley. But by expanding the viewpoint of “what makes a good school,” quota limits start to open up and the competitive application process can turn in your favor.

Take schools such as University of the Pacific, Auburn University, and the University of Dayton — all have top-200 rankings, research opportunities and most importantly, strong career outcomes, including OPT assistance.

“I chose Pacific because it was near San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and I simply thought I would have more job opportunities when I graduated,” says Htein Linn Thar. “After all is said and done, the education system in the U.S. is all about self-study. No matter where you go it is mostly on you. You will become what you put effort into. Just study hard and try hard. You do not need a degree from a top-10 school.”

In researching master’s programs in the U.S., Rachel Rajan discovered the University of Dayton, thanks to education counselors from U.S. News Global Education.

“UDayton’s STEM programs and research lab fascinated me,” says the India native. “Their amazing work on AI and data science made me decide, ‘Yes, this is the one.’”

“I believe that school rankings are not the only criteria,” she continues. “The courses offered, their STEM degree ranking and research programs play a significant role.”

Check out a few internationally friendly U.S. universities with competitive STEM programs:

Auburn University

  • Degrees offered: Master of Science in Computer Science and Software Engineering; Master of Science in Cybersecurity Engineering; Master of Science in Data Science & Engineering and more
  • Rankings & Stats: #97 in National Universities, #56 in Engineering, #20 in Analytics, #82 in Computer Science (S. News & World Report, 2022)
  • Location: Welcoming college town, two hours from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
  • Job outcomes: Auburn Global students have gone on to work for companies like Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Apple, Amazon Web Services, Equifax, Meta, Visa Technology & Operations and NCR Corporation.

University of Dayton

  • Degrees offered: Master of Science in Computer Engineering, Master of Business Analytics (MBAN) and more
  • Rankings & Stats: #127 in National Universities, #114 in Engineering, #191 in Computer Science (S. News & World Report, 2022)
  • Location: Midwest city, with ties to flight pioneers the Wright Brothers
  • Job outcomes: UDayton Global STEM students have been hired by JP Morgan Chase, Tata Consultancy Services, Honeywell, Cummins, Innovision and Charter Communications.

University of the Pacific

  • Degrees offered: Master of Science in Computer Science, Master of Science in Data Science and Master of Science in Business Analytics, among others
  • Rankings & Stats: #136 in National Universities, #62 in Engineering, #274 in Computer Science (U.S. News & World Report, 2022)
  • Location: California has the highest number of STEM jobs in the U.S., thanks to tech hotbeds San Francisco and San Jose, both under two hours from Pacific’s main campus in Stockton
  • Job outcomes: UOP International graduates have interned, worked at and completed OPT at Charles Schwab, Insight Global, Visa, Vetro Technologies, JP Outfitters, Tata Consultancy Services, E & J Gallo Winery, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and more.

Expansion of Tech Cities Across the U.S.

Historically, major tech hubs like San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and Boston were the leading locations for companies to establish their headquarters. Now smaller metros like Denver and Austin are joining the ranks of top cities for tech jobs.

A recent WalletHub study (2021) found the hottest 10 cities for tech jobs are:

  1. Seattle, WA
  2. Austin, TX
  3. Boston, MA
  4. Madison, WI
  5. Minneapolis, MN
  6. Atlanta, GA
  7. Pittsburgh, PA
  8. San Francisco, CA
  9. Salt Lake City, UT
  10. Orlando, FL

 “STEM opportunities are spreading across the U.S., and are expected to grow at a rapid pace over the next 10 years,” says Landry. “Many startups with high STEM demand are staying in their hometowns and well-established organizations of all sizes that began their journey in northern California are expanding throughout the U.S. Companies are recognizing that different locations with cheaper rents enable companies to spend more money on valuable talent or research and development.”

The Future Is Bright for STEM Degree Graduates

With multilingual capabilities, cultural adaptability and global experience, international students looking to study in the USA are uniquely positioned to fill the predicted hiring gap in the next 10 years. And a STEM-designated degree is the key to leveraging that advantage, securing STEM-OPT status, and launching a career in the U.S.

“Universities across the country are expanding their programs and opportunities for international students,” says Landry in closing. “President Biden and Congress are actively focused on creating opportunities for international students, especially those studying in STEM fields. Post-graduation opportunities are going to continue to grow in the U.S., along with salaries which are already 50% above non-STEM fields. For students considering studying in the U.S., the future is bright.”

Sources

  1. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2010/04/06/us-birth-rate-decline-linked-to-recession/
  2. https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/stem-opt-hub/additional-resources/eligible-cip-codes-for-the-stem-opt-extension
  3. https://www.ice.gov/doclib/sevis/pdf/stemList2022.pdf
  4. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2022/01/21/2022-01188/update-to-the-department-of-homeland-security-stem-designated-degree-program-list
  5. https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/stem-employment.htm#2
  6. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-and-information-research-scientists.htm
  7. https://ice.gov/doclib/sevis
  8. https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2020
  9. https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/rankings/best-technology-jobs
  10. https://www.ice.gov/doclib/sevis/pdf/data_Top200_EmployersSTEM_OPT_Students2019.pdf
  11. https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/
  12. https://whatis.techtarget.com/feature/Top-12-best-cities-for-tech-jobs
  13. https://wallethub.com/edu/best-worst-metro-areas-for-stem-professionals/9200

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