As the immigration debate rages on across the nation, technology companies and business groups are becoming increasingly concerned that their calls for more specialty work visas will be lost in the political shuffle.
While much of the conversation in recent weeks has focused on unskilled, undocumented workers, business leaders continue to speak out about what they say is a shortage of H-1B visas, which are used for temporary employment in "specialty" industries such as engineering and medicine.
The U.S. currently issues 65,000 H-1B visas annually. During the dotcom boom, the numbers were temporarily raised, as a result of lobbying from high tech companies, climbing as high as 195,000 from 2001-2003. The visas require employers to pay fees and sponsor a specific candidate to fill a position that the company cannot reasonably fill with a U.S. citizen. The visas can be renewed for up to six years.
Marshall Fitz, the director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, an organization that represents immigration lawyers and law professors, said that demand for such workers has simply outpaced the supply of available visas, and there is no doubt that the number of H-1B visas needs to go back up. "We have met the annual quota before the fiscal year started for two years running," Fitz said. "There are literally thousands of businesses that depend on H-1Bs."
Fitz noted that the visas allow U.S. businesses to draw from the global talent pool for "highly skilled workers for niche needs" -- not just in high tech, as was largely the case just a few years ago, but across many fields. The alternative for companies who cannot bring workers to the U.S. can be offshoring, he said.
With unemployment remaining low, at least some recent research points to a shortage of workers -- both skilled and unskilled -- among small businesses. A poll released earlier this month by the National Federation of Independent Business found that small-business owners report twice as much difficulty in hiring skilled workers as they have had in recent years. More than 71% of business owners said they now find it difficult or very difficult to find adequate employees.
Not being able to hire efficiently means some small businesses lose out on contracts. "We do lose a certain amount of business every year," said Vijay Vallabhaneni, the founder and CEO of Webyoga, a software and consulting firm in Dayton, Ohio. Vallabhaneni believes the losses could be avoided if the H-1B application process was streamlined and predictable.
Webyoga has 50 employees and half of them are H-1B visa holders. Vallabhaneni has come to accept the loss of business because it is so difficult for a consulting company to plan staffing needs nearly a year in advance, something required by the realities of the cumbersome H-1B applications.
While Vallabhaneni wouldn't mind some increase in the number of H-1B visas. "I don't want it to be raised too high because I do understand the motivation behind proper immigration -- to have the best people come in and serve the country," he said. For Webyoga, a simpler, less expensive process would help more than greater numbers. "The fees are very cost prohibitive at this point in time for smaller companies," he added.
Jeff Chambers, vice president of human resources at SAS, a Cary, N.C.-based software firm, said the current visa limits are unnecessarily low. "It's almost punitive to American industry," he said. "We cannot find the people with the skills we need to run our business."
Chambers said SAS has 5,000 employees and roughly 60 are on H-1B visas. But the company has positions that have stayed open for more than three years. "Try to find someone with a Ph.D. in operations research." he said, "They're as rare as hens teeth. The irony is that you've got tons of unskilled workers coming in all the time, but try to bring in a skilled work through legal channels and you can't do it."