The catch-22 of coveted H-1B visas
Open season on visas for foreign workers starts up again on Oct. 1, but the
red tape - especially for small businesses - is tough to unravel
By Roger Fillion
EVERGREEN, Colo. Sept. 24 - In our tight labor market, small businesses
must go to great lengths to find skilled, talented employees - especially
ones with high-tech expertise. Hiring foreign workers brings an extra layer
of complexity. Employers must decide whether it's worth the inconvenience
and the money to try and secure a so-called H-1B visa from the federal
government. Those who've done it say be prepared for migraines.
"IT'S ONE of those damned if you do, damned if you don't sort of
things," explains Scott Williams, who is in charge of recruiting for
Cimetric Commerce in Columbus, Ohio. "It becomes very much a gamble whether
the petition you put in will be approved."
Cimetric employs 53 people and does electronic commerce work for
corporate clients. It has submitted a request for an H-1B worker with the
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The petition has been pending
at the INS' Nebraska processing center for more than three months. "Are
there other candidates that come with this guy's credentials?" asks
Williams. No, he says of the worker being petitioned. "He's the perfect
Tips for getting an H-1B visa
* Think ahead. You should already be applying for the H-1B visas available
in fiscal year 2001, which begins Oct. 1.
* Understand the application process and the rules laid out by the INS. A
law firm with attorneys specializing in immigration law can provide guidance
and keep you abreast of pending changes in the law.
* If hiring a worker with an existing H-1B visa, make sure he has plenty of
time remaining on his visa and not just, say, a year.
* Be patient. Securing a visa for a worker can take up to four months.
OPEN SEASON ON VISAS
Oct. 1 marks not only the start of the 2001 fiscal year for Uncle
Sam, it also marks the beginning of visa season. On that date the INS will
formally consider applications for its coveted 2001 H-1B visa slots. Those
visas are going be in even more demand this fall than in the past. The
number of H-1B visas available for skilled overseas workers is slated to
drop by 7 percent in 2001 to 107,500 unless Congress and the Clinton
administration agree to raise the cap.
The visas are set aside for foreigners with specialized skills - such
as high-tech workers - and fashion models with "distinguished merit and
ability." The holders are permitted to enter the country for up to six
The information-technology and telecommunications industries are big
users. High-tech workers from India, Eastern Europe, China, and other Far
East nations come to the U.S. under the program.
The H-1B cap for the current fiscal year 2000, which ends Sept. 30,
is 115,000 visas. That limit was hit in March, reflecting huge demand.
Industry officials say the INS could run out of the visas for 2001 by
December or January. The limit for fiscal 2002 is set to fall to 65,000.
Small Business on MSNBC
Stories and resources
for standout small firms
Timing is critical in obtaining a spot. Liz Stern, a partner with
the Washington law firm Shaw Pittman, advises clients to act quickly with
their applications for the 2001 slots to save a place in line. "You've got
to get those H-1Bs filed now. And I mean now," she says.
Stern says that in addition to the $610 INS filing fee, attorney
costs for an H-1B applicant usually run about $2,000. She says the process
hits small businesses especially hard. The ability to secure financing or to
land a contract may depend on having the right worker at the right time.
Small businesses' "depth of resources is less, and they have imminent
deadlines which may make or break the company," Stern says.
Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush support boosting
the H-1B ceiling. But legislation to nearly double the existing cap has been
stalled on Capitol Hill until recently. In its abbreviated term this fall,
however, the Senate has agreed to take up the bill.
High-tech employers, arguing they face a severe shortage of skilled
engineers and computer programmers, support an increase. The Information
Technology Association of America estimated in April that the
information-technology industry would create 1.6 million new jobs over the
coming year - and that nearly 850,000 of those positions would go unfilled.
But labor unions and others who are worried about the fate of
American workers say more foreign labor isn't the solution. They point to a
better education system that promotes math, science and engineering. U.S.
software programmers, led by the Programmer's Guild and engineers, led by
the American Engineering Association, are even more adamant. They argue that
there isn't a worker shortage, and that high-tech employers are using the
H-1B program to import cheap labor. And black engineers, scientists and
computer specialists complain that minority Americans are being shut out
from well paying technical and scientific jobs.
CATCH-22 OF H-1BS
Small business owners look on the H-1B program with mixed emotions.
Raj Shah, CEO of Capital Technology Information Services, considers it
invaluable, but costly. "It's an incredible source for bringing
cost-effective labor that we have a shortage for," says Shah, whose
Rockville, Md., company manages information for the health-care industry.
CTIS relies on H-1B workers to fill about 40 percent of its 150
positions. Shah figures it costs anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 a year to
manage the visa process. But without those workers - who do software
development and integration as well as programming - the work would go
Aside from the financial costs of the program, Shah says there are
logistical hurdles. He must schedule his work and recruitment efforts around
the visas and when they are granted.
But not every company finds the visa process so laborious. Reliable
Software Technologies of Dulles, Va., relies on H-1B workers to fill nearly
20 percent of its 105 jobs. "We're very familiar with the visa process so
it's not a big deal for us," says Sandy Biancucci, RST's human resources
director. RST, which specializes in software risk management, has much of
the H-1B paperwork in its computer system.
Moreover, the company will foot the $10,000 tab a foreign job
candidate faces if he wants to become a permanent U.S. resident. "It's a way
to find really loyal employees," says Biancucci.
Of course, the H-1B program isn't for everybody. "It's not an area we
would pursue frequently," says David Peterson, CEO of Atlanta's North
Highland Co., a management and technology consulting firm. "It's a lot of
North Highland operates in the Southeast. Peterson figures the
workers he needs already live in the community. His company, which employs
200, is on the lookout for those who know the local business scene. The
consulting firm values candidates with more than just high-tech expertise.
"Interpersonal skills are much more important," says Peterson.