IT departments that rely on foreign and offshore workers to staff projects could see their initiatives held up by staffing shortages caused by H-1B visa processing delays and increased scrutiny of guest worker visa programs, according to industry watchers.
It used to take the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) two to four weeks, on average, to process the H-1B visa applications that IT outsourcing companies use to bring skilled workers to the U.S. on a temporary basis.
Today, it takes at least twice that long. According the USCIS web site, the average processing time for H-1B applications at its four regional service centers is 60 days, whether it's a new application, a change of status or an extension of stay.
"We've seen a slowdown to eight weeks in most cases," confirms Elizabeth Espin Stern, managing partner in the Washington, D.C. office of law firm Baker & McKenzie. "It's a significant concern for new hires, less so for renewals, provided the renewal is filed early and the labor condition application is valid throughout." (Employers are required to complete a labor condition application as supporting evidence for an H-1B visa application to affirm, among other things, that it will pay the H-1B visa holder a prevailing wage and the position will not adversely affect the conditions of similarly employed American workers.)
While the USCIS Priority Processing Service, at a cost of $1,000 per petition, can speed up the process to fifteen calendar days from the day the application is received, companies sponsoring H-1B applicants are also experiencing additional delays in the form of requests for evidence (RFEs) by the USCIS.
The annual report that the USCIS Ombudsman's Office issued earlier this year reported a rise in RFEs at its California service center: They grew from less than 10 percent of H-1B applications in 2006 to around 20 percent in 2010.
RFEs for the L-1B visa—which outsourcers also use to transfer employees with specialized knowledge from a foreign location to the U.S.—skyrocketed from approximately 12 percent of all applications processed by the California service center to nearly 40 percent in 2010.
"Employers continue to express a high level of frustration with USCIS issuance of RFEs, and provide the Ombudsman's Office with examples of inappropriate and unduly burdensome RFEs," the report says. "Elevated RFE rates are impeding legitimate business operations."
H-1B Delays Threaten Project Deadlines
For IT groups relying on foreign workers to complete projects, the perceived bureaucracy represents another hurdle in their effort to get their initiatives completed on time. "The issue is not just the length of the delay, but the fact that the delays risk derailing implementation schedules that have very little leeway built into them," says Steven Hall, partner and managing director of CIO Services for outsourcing consultancy TPI. "If the change plan anticipates a two-week turnaround, but the visa delays make it a four-week turnaround, that means the entire project plan is off track."
Hall adds that IT outsourcing companies have told him about cases in which their workers travelling to the U.S. on H-1B or L-1 visas have been stopped by immigration officials and/or refused entry into the U.S.
Offshore IT service providers—both multinationals based in the U.S. and those with headquarters in India and elsewhere—continue to rely on the easy transfer of H-1B visa holders, particularly early on in their outsourcing deals. "The visa holders are critical resources, as they are needed to transition between onsite and offshore," says TPI's Hall.
The visa holder typically travels to the U.S. for two to four months for knowledge acquisition at the client site, then returns offshore to train the delivery teams. Such roles aren't easily filled by onshore staff, says Hall. "It's not just a matter of having the skills available onshore, but rather the ability to leverage the expertise and knowledge of visa holders in managing the offshore operation," he says.
How IT Can Mitigate H-1B Risks
The lesson for IT departments that use offshore and H-1B resources is clear: Put in place contingency plans for visa processing delays. Expect that H-1B visa applications will take at least two months to process and that some will be denied outright, Hall advises.
Another piece of advice: Outsourcing customers should do what it takes to keep their own subject matter experts in-house longer. That may mean offering them bigger retention bonuses.
There may also be ways to use new collaboration and document sharing software to get the transition work going before the offshore resources arrive, says Hall, but it's important to test those new tools and connections early.
Finally, there's the option of completing more of the transition work offshore, sending stateside resources overseas instead of vice versa. It's usually a costlier option, but it can provide the customer with better insight into how the offshore operations actually work, according to Hall.