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By all indications, 2015 is shaping up to be a record year for H-1B visa requests from U.S. employers. Several factors, including a strengthening U.S. job market, a job skills gap and a growing need for cybersecurity experts, have created a “perfect storm” of sorts, and many job market analysts estimate that employer requests for the coveted H-1B visas could top 200,000—with some saying that number could approach a quarter-million.
On April 1, 2015, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will begin accepting employer petitions for H-1B visas, which allow companies to hire highly skilled workers from other countries. The start date for workers receiving new H-1B visas will be Oct. 1, 2015.
By law, the filing period must remain open for at least five business days or until the number of requests reaches the annual cap of 65,000 H-1B visas. An additional 20,000 H-1Bvisas are available to foreign workers who have earned a master’s degree or higher from a U.S. college or university.
During the first five working days of April 2014, employers filed 172,500 requests for H-1B visas, or more than double the annual cap. Anecdotal evidence and several informal polls indicate that in 2015 most employers plan to either increase or maintain their same number of visa requests.
“It definitely appears that demand for H-1B visas is set to surpass last year, perhaps by a wide margin,” said Justin Storch, manager of agency liaison at the Council for Global Immigration in Alexandria, Va.
A Controversial Visa CapOnce the number of employer requests tops the annual cap, the USCIS will hold a lottery to randomly select which businesses will receive the work visas. The H-1B visa cap has been controversial for years, and many leaders in the high-tech industry, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have lobbied to relax work visa regulations and increase the number of highly skilled foreign workers that high-tech businesses can hire.
Opponents of eliminating or increasing the visa cap claim that foreign workers are taking jobs from capable U.S. citizens. Some critics of the H-1B program have argued that businesses use the visas to hire employees from overseas who will work for less than U.S.-based workers, and therefore drive wages down. Several of these critics have gone so far as to say that the IT worker shortage and skills gap in the United States is a myth.
Other labor market analysts disagree and say the evidence is clear that there is a shortage of highly skilled IT workers, and that U.S. employers have no other choice but to look beyond the country’s borders to find the talent they desperately need.
“I’m firmly in the camp that the talent shortage is real, and that the demand for H-1B visas will only keep growing,” said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement consulting group. “If you look at the unemployment numbers then it’s pretty evident that there’s going to be stiff competition for top talent.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the national unemployment rate dipped to 5.5 percent in February 2015. The telling number, however, Challenger said, is the unemployment rate for people who have a college degree. The BLS numbers show the unemployment rate for people with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 2.7 percent.
“And I would expect that number to be considerably lower for anyone who has a degree in engineering or computer science fields,” Challenger said.
He said it’s very clear that information technology workers now top the wish list for employers who are looking to fill an estimated 500,000 job openings in IT and high-tech-related fields.
Hope RemainsAlthough the number of employer requests could reach as high as three times the number of available visas, businesses should not be dissuaded from filing visa petitions with the USCIS. The random nature of the visa lottery means that every employer has an equal chance of having its requests granted. In the fall of 2014, officials with USCIS attempted to make the H-1B process easier for employers by placing filing tips and guidelines online. As the deadline approaches, employers are encouraged to submit their requests for visas as quickly as possible. In 2015, the first five working days for filing the visa petitions will begin on Wednesday, April 1 and end on Tuesday, April 7.
Options Are AvailableIf an employer misses the filing deadline or isn’t chosen during the visa lottery, then alternatives to the H-1Bs are available:
*Canadian and Mexican professionals may be eligible for TN visas under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
*Employees who have been transferred or promoted within an organization may be eligible for L-1 visas. If a business has international operations, this visa permits employees to transfer to the U.S.-affiliated company in a similar position if they have worked abroad for parent, subsidiary or affiliate companies for at least a year within the preceding three years. Applicants must be an executive or manager, or work in a specialized-knowledge capacity.
*If an employer is enrolled in E-Verify, then employees who have degrees in a science, technology, engineering or math field could be eligible for a 17-month training extension.
*Individuals with an F-1 status can continue with their F-1 studies in the U.S. and look for internship opportunities.
Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.
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