When there aren’t enough U.S. IT workers to tap, companies are forced to turn to foreign nationals. One way they can reach that workforce is to find foreign professionals who hold IT-related college degrees from U.S. schools and then sponsor them through H-1B visas that must be approved by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Each year, the INS approves the number of H-1B visas set by Congress. Originally set at 65,000 visas per year through the Immigration Act of 1990, Congress increased that number to 115,000 visas for the past two years. But that hasn’t been enough to fill the need of U.S. companies.

In 1999, the INS ran out of visas in June; this year the quota was filled by March 17. The approvals for next year will begin Oct. 1.

There is currently legislation working its way through Congress, which, if approved, will bring the H-1B quota for next year as high as 200,000 workers.

The bottom line for CIOs: If you know you are going to need foreign workers next year, now is the time to begin the visa process.

The new legislation
Many industry insiders have high hopes that the current H-1B legislation proposing to increase the number of available visas will work to reduce the U.S. IT worker shortage.

Speaking in February before a government commission studying the workforce needs of the IT industry, Steven Leven, senior vice president for human resources at Texas Instruments , cautioned that limits on foreign IT workers “is not good policy.”

Leven’s testimony on Feb. 24 was to the 21st Century Workforce Commission , which was established by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998.

No one knows whether the increase will address the shortage in a significant way, but Tinabeth Burton, a spokeswoman for the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), said the ITAA supports any help Congress can give the industry.

“There are so many numbers out there predicting just how fast high tech, the Internet, and e-commerce are going to grow,” she said. “Of course, with each prediction there are jobs behind those numbers.”

Fully staffed: At what cost?
The fact that there is a quota for foreign professionals makes some companies wonder if it is worth the trouble of hiring a foreign national, according to Theodore Huang, an attorney with National Immigration Services in Walnut, CA.

“Is this person really worth the trouble of hiring an attorney, processing the paperwork, and waiting for several months for a response?” Huang said.

Apparently, many CIOs must think so.

“Clients are already approaching us with applications for Oct. 1,” said John Dorer, director of the American Immigration Network in New York, “which means they are so desperate for them that they are willing to wait.”

Companies unable to fill positions will be forced to delay or cancel projects, turn away customers, and face other setbacks, said Leven. For these companies, having to battle for visas is worth the effort.

Will workers come to you or will you go to them?
If Congress doesn’t help the industry out, many of the current and predicted high-tech jobs will not be in the U.S., some say.

“A lot of my clients are looking at establishing offshore development centers in high-concentration software professional areas like India and China,” Dorer said. “If you can’t get the manpower here, you have to go where the manpower is.”

That kind of logic concerns the ITAA, Burton said.

“The last thing we want is for these lucrative jobs to be lost overseas,” she said.

Because the visas are temporary, companies already lose their foreign workers after their six-year H-1B visas run out. But with the current system, both the companies and the foreign professionals gain something—the companies fulfill some of their workforce needs and the professionals get a well-paid job and opportunities for career advancement.

“International students studying technical fields have found this visa to be quite useful in enabling them to get some real-world experience after they’ve concluded their studies,” Huang said.

How the visa process works
According to 1997 figures, which Leven said are the most recent available, more than 40 percent of master’s degrees in electrical engineering in the U.S., and nearly half the doctorates, were awarded to foreign nationals.

Most of those students stay in the states for a year under the INS Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, Dorer said. Students do this by finding work typically through their student advisor.

If the recent graduate’s new employer wants the person to stay, or another company wants to hire the graduate after the OPT period, then that employer files a petition with the INS to get an H-1B visa for the graduate, Dorer said.

After filing the petition for a visa, the graduate can start work for the company after Oct. 1, if the INS approves the visa.

There are two obstacles that remain a part of the process, Dorer said.

The first is the quota. If the petition isn’t filed early enough, the INS may run out of visas.

The second problem is the time it takes to process both the initial visa, or what is called a transfer petition if the foreign professional is changing jobs from one company to another.

“A lot of our clients are IT consulting companies or e-commerce companies and software companies, and everybody knows they needed people yesterday,” Dorer said. “They have to wait two or three months to get the visa and it seems like a lifetime.”

Meanwhile, although the INS says a foreign worker can stay in the U.S. if an H-1B petition is filed, the foreign professional isn’t allowed to work until his/her visa is approved.

“It puts both the foreign worker and the employer at a financial disadvantage,” Dorer said.

The legislation now before Congress would not only raise the quota for H-1B workers, but would also allow the immediate transfer of a previously approved visa from a current employer to a new employer.
Should there be a limit to how many H-1B visas can be granted? Does your company benefit from foreign professionals? When will your company be preparing H-1B petitions and how many will you be seeking? Post a note below or send us an e-mail with your thoughts.