by Beth Bacheldor

If H-1B Petitions Are Rising, Will More Foreign Techies Arrive?

Dec 09, 2009
IT Leadership

Demand is spiking for H-1B visas, but what’s it all mean? And will it matter to the tech industry if legislators have their way?

Based on data released last week form the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, the demand for H-1B visas is escalating. In fact, as of Dec. 4, approximately 61,100 H-1B petitions had been filed – putting the number very close to the Congressionally-mandated cap of 65,000 for the 2010 fiscal year. What is particularly interesting about the petitions thus far is that in normal times (i.e., not a recession) most of the visas are allocated much more quickly, within a few months from April when they are first accepted. But this year, by September the number of petitions was relatively low – at about 45,000.

Until now. The spike started around October and continues (for more on that, read this story).

So, why the jump in demand for H-1B visas? The simple and hopeful answer is that the spike reflects the thawing of the U.S. economy, and U.S. companies are being proactive. After all, the reason for the sluggish demand through the summer was likely due to the economy.

The answer gets a little dicier when you consider companies’ concern about the ongoing anti-immigration sentiment, and the backlash of American workers who’ve lost their jobs and are still struggling to find work. That was probably a reason for slowing H-1B visa demand, but how does that factor into the now-growing demand? Are companies that bullish on the economy that they’re saying, “To heck with public sentiment!”?

As for me, I’m a pragmatist—while I’m sure there are few companies that could give a hoot about what the public thinks of them, and there are few that would rather buck the tide and seek expertise wherever they see fit, I think most companies aren’t like that. It’s just too costly nowadays to be a bad guy in the court of pubic opinion.

I’m thinking that the spike is coming from industries where there actually may be a shortage of skilled workers (and apparently that’s what experts are saying in reports I’ve read). It would make sense that many of the petitions are for professionals such as engineers, doctors, and nurses.

I do hope that’s true. After all, thousands of IT and high-tech professionals have been laid off in the last year. According to the high-tech weblog Techcrunch, which has been tracking relevant layoffs in the tech sector since October 2008, as many as 350,299 people have lost their jobs. That’s a large pool of human capital. Perhaps many of those folks have found new homes for their talents, but with the unemployment numbers being what they are, I have my doubts.

Of course, I’m not so naive to think that there are no petitions for foreign tech professionals among the more than 61,000 H-1B visas filed to date. Historically, they have been the bulk of H-1B filings. And frankly, I’m okay with some. I’m of the ilk that it’s a global world and a more diverse staff can give companies an edge in that global world.

But perhaps more conditions should be put on H-1B visas, particularly at this time. Two senators have introduced legislation that would prevent any company that has laid 50 or more employees from hiring guest workers (see that story here).

Such a bill would effectively cut the chances of many tech firms petitioning for guest workers. But is legislation the answer? Particularly, is it the answer for an industry that has notoriously bristled at limits through legislation and leans more toward free market rule? What about you, readers?