A growing number of high-skilled foreign workers find jobs in the United States under a program known as Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows foreign graduates from U.S. universities to work in the country on a temporary basis.
Foreign students from India (72,151) and China (68,847) accounted for more than half (57%) of all those who were approved for OPT and found jobs from 2012 to 2015, according to a study released May 1, by the Pew Research Center which analysed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement data received through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Other top countries included South Korea (14,242), Taiwan (7,032) and Nepal (5,309). Unlike other U.S. visa programs, OPT has no cap on the number of foreign graduates who can participate. OPT is not subject to congressional oversight, though the program, which was created in 1947, can be changed by a U.S. president.
The study shows India and Iran have the highest shares of OPT employees with STEM degrees.
Graduates in STEM fields accounted for at least 70% of OPT approvals from India, Iran, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka from 2012 to 2015, according to Pew’s analysis of USCIS data. Of the 72,151 from India employed under OPT, 84% had STEM degrees, the highest percentage of any origin country. Iran (79%), Bangladesh (74%) and Sri Lanka (70%) also had high shares of STEM graduates. Among those from China, 54% went to STEM graduates.
The Pew data from USCIS showed the federal government approved nearly 700,000 OPT applications in fiscal years 2008 through 2014, almost as many as those getting the H-1B visas now under review by the Trump administration.
Data from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2014, show 768,214 H-1B visas were awarded, compared with 696,914 OPT approvals. Many of those working in the U.S. under the OPT program go on to apply for H-1B visas to stay longer in the U.S., Pew says.
The total number of foreign graduates using OPT may continue to increase in subsequent years, Pew predicts, as more than 1 million foreign students studied at U.S. higher educational institutions in the 2015-16 school year, a record high, according to Pew.
U.S. college graduates with F-1 visas for foreign students may apply to OPT, and those approved may work in the U.S. for up to 12 months in their field of study. However, those in STEM fields (Science, technology engineering, and mathematics) field may work in the U.S. for longer – up to 36 months, an expansion made during the Obama administration.
Interestingly, only 4 percent of those employed under the OPT program from 2012 to 2015, worked at the ten largest tech companies in the Fortune 500.