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The future of the H-1B visa program is uncertain—but forward-thinking organizations should consider some fallback plans to cover their high-end tech talent needs.
If you're an executive in the technology industry, or even an executive in a non-tech company that uses cutting-edge technology, you already know how important it is to keep your R&D moving forward in an environment of intense international competition. You probably also have a strategic roadmap that forecasts what you're going to need in top talent—not only in 2017 but through 2020 and beyond.
But where do you get this talent? And how do you keep the talent pipeline flowing?
Among the high demand jobs in 2016 that companies scrambled to fill were DevOps specialists, mobile, database, and software engineers, mobile, software, and Java developers, software architects, user interface designers, and front end developers.
In the big data and analytics field, colleges and universities began to churn out grads in response to growing industry demand—but the real area of need for companies was professionals with four or more years of experience.
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Concerned that US STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) talent couldn't keep up with internal demand, technology companies have relied on international subject matter experts and tech workers obtained through the H-1B visa program in the past—but now a change in US government administration is promising to bring challenges to H-1B.
If you're in charge of a technology company or function and obtaining mission-critical expertise is necessary for your operation, you need to contingency plan for these possible changes.
How can you do this? Here are three steps you might take.
1: Assess and categorize your talent
A government H-1B visa program review is likely to focus first on mid- to lower-level jobs that have the greatest potential to be in-sourced in the near term. For unique and highly skilled jobs that the US market simply can't fill, it is going to make sense to keep H1-B visa options open to tech companies. The net of this is that if you have STEM positions that require exceptional and unique talent that the local market can't meet, you may still be able to obtain this talent thorough H1-B. However, for mid- to lower-level talent, H1-B options could be reduced.
2: Devote more time to internal talent assessment and development
There is a tendency for companies to take their internal employees for granted instead of looking at them as potential diamonds in the rough who could be developed into higher-level talent. One reason this happens is that the individuals who would make great candidates for new positions are already employed in positions that are deemed indispensable. The big question is, where will your greatest skills needs be three years from now? If they will be in areas that differ from your high demand areas today, it might be wise to bite the bullet and begin training some of your existing high-value employees for these new positions.
3: Collaborate with outside organizations that are training or retraining workers into positions you're going to need
Developing an internship and recruiting partnership with a local university is a great idea. Or you can team with an organization that retrains workers who might fit nicely into your tech talent pool. Karen Ross is CEO of Sharp Decisions, which trains and retrains military veterans for technology jobs. "These vets are ideal candidates for IT development and project team jobs," she said. "We train the veterans in the technologies that are in demand and then deploy them in insurance, technology, and financial companies. What we find is that these are people who are willing to work hard. They are mission-oriented and used to a team-oriented approach. Many of them already have great technical skills that they learned in the military, such as in IT security."
At this point, there is no way to know how the H-1B visa program will change—but it seems likely that it will change.
Pragmatism may dictate that high-level, hard-to-fill jobs will remain open to foreign-born workers, but there could also be pushback from the international talent pool if immigration policies change and it becomes more attractive for these highly sought individuals to go elsewhere.
In the meantime, it would seem that a balanced approach is best: Combine H-1B visa outreach for unique and difficult-to-find talent with a rigorous domestic development and outreach program to get you where you need to go. Regardless of the route that CEOs, CIOs, and VPs of R&D choose to take, managing and retaining your human capital must be a core strategy.
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