Coming to America

To plug the talent gap, finance departments are hiring foreign nationals — if they can obtain visas, that is.
Kate PlourdJuly 15, 2008

For Mona Leung, CFO of Alliant Credit Union, the search for finance talent has become a lesson in international relations.

Disappointed in the crop of American-born students coming out of business schools near the company’s Chicago headquarters, Leung has turned to U.S.-educated foreign nationals. In fact, Alliant has hired four such employees in the past four years. They work in finance and other departments via the H-1B visa program, which permits foreign guest workers with a so-called specialty degree to work in the United States for up to six years.

“[We’re] not looking specifically for overseas students,” says Leung, but rather for “individuals who are very comfortable talking about financial products, who can manage from an operational perspective, and who are good in math and good with people.” Not only do Alliant’s foreign-born staffers meet those qualifications (all have MBAs), they are also more motivated and ambitious than their U.S.-born peers, claims Leung. “They have that desire to come to the U.S., which gives them an extra edge,” she says.

How Startup CFO Grew Food Company 50% YoY

How Startup CFO Grew Food Company 50% YoY

This case study of JonnyPops’ success highlights the unusual financial and operational strategies that enabled rapid expansion into a crowded and highly competitive frozen treat market. 

While many finance chiefs complain about the dearth of homegrown finance talent, some are following Leung’s lead and filling the gap by hiring foreign nationals. Like Leung, they prize those recruits for their abilities, their cultural diversity, and their work ethic. At Pitney Bowes, many of the 16 foreign nationals in the company’s 515-member corporate finance department display a strong drive to learn and contribute, says treasurer Helen Shan, who also heads the company’s finance recruiting program. Ranging in age from their late 20s to their early 40s, Pitney Bowes’s foreign nationals hail from China, India, Bulgaria, France, and Venezuela. Most have master’s degrees in finance-related fields, and all carry H-1B visas.

A Global Advantage

Mike Van Handel, CFO of Manpower Inc., sees another benefit: an internationally diverse finance team can give companies an advantage in overseas operations. Foreign nationals can adapt more easily to doing business in other countries, he contends, “because they grew up interacting with other cultures.”

For example, Van Handel cites a 10-person project team — a subset of the company’s Audit Advisory Services Team — that was asked this past May to find ways to shorten the order-to-cash cycle of Manpower’s Japanese subsidiary. The project team collectively hailed from five countries and spoke nine languages. Many of the 10 boast advanced business degrees. Members drew on their business experience in their home countries and their understanding of the local culture (2 were born and reared in Japan) to identify cultural nuances and ferret out causes of problems that might otherwise have been missed, says Van Handel.

Winning the Lottery

Despite the growing number of foreign nationals skilled in finance, hiring them can be both a challenge and a risk, thanks to the limited number of H-1B visas available. The United States awards 65,000 visas annually in the general category, through a computer-generated random-selection process. Another 20,000 visas are reserved for foreign nationals who have advanced degrees from U.S. universities. Demand for the visas is high: over the past two years corporate applicants have outnumbered visas roughly 2 to 1. The annual selection process is conducted in the spring, and quotas are typically filled within a few days.

Technology firms in search of skilled programmers have long called on the government to raise the cap on H-1B visas. Now, finance executives are chiming in. “You can hire someone for the summer, spend 10 weeks with them, and then make them an offer, but if they don’t get the visa they can’t work here,” says Shan. “There are a lot of companies that tell people not to apply if they don’t have a visa, because of the risk.”

But given the difficulty of finding finance talent, “it’s a risk you have to take,” asserts Leung. Don’t be surprised, say Leung and others, if the next person you hire to fill a finance position is imported. “It’s like we’re looking for the best athletes,” says Shan, “and a lot of those athletes are internationals.”

Kate Plourd is a reporter for CFO.

The ABCs of H-1Bs

Companies can’t apply for H-1B visas without candidates, so the first order of business is to have qualified people in mind (hint: reach out to local colleges and offer internships, interviews, or informal get-togethers as a way to assess promising students).

• An employer must verify with U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) that the job requires a specialty degree.

• If an H-1B candidate has a degree from abroad, the employer must submit the recruit’s foreign degree to a USCIS-approved credentialing service for verification.

• The employer submits the proposed salary to the Department of Labor, which verifies that it is equal to or higher than the going rate for similar positions in the same region.

• The employer signs an agreement with USCIS promising to pay the H-1B worker the proposed wage.

• H-1B applications are accepted for five days beginning on April 1. The government notifies recipients from June through October, when the visas become valid.

• Several fees total about $2,500 per worker.

Sources: Jennifer G. Parser, Ward and Smith; Lynda Zengerle, Steptoe & Johnson