Red tape forces out top Caltrans workers
Agency would like to keep skilled foreign engineers but is unable to sponsor them for green cards
By Susan Ferriss and Mehul Srivastava - Sunday September 10, 2006
(annotations in yellow boxes)
SACRAMENTO - Foreign engineers have been vital to the construction of California's complex and mammoth highway system, but they are being pushed out of jobs with the state Department of Transportation because of a conflict between state hiring rules and federal immigration laws.
Dozens of foreign engineers in the past decade have left Caltrans because their temporary work visas were going to expire, according to the union that represents Caltrans engineers. Ninety-eight Caltrans employees -- 75 of them engineers -- are currently on H-1B work visas that last a maximum of six years.
These engineers also will be forced to leave Caltrans unless the agency can sponsor them for green cards, the permit that grants them legal permanent residency.
Caltrans values the engineers, wants to hire them permanently and says it is a colossal waste of money to let veteran professionals go after investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in training and costs to process their temporary visas.
Caltrans director Will Kempton first raised the issue with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office two years ago, pointing out that losses of experienced foreign engineers have jeopardized Caltrans' goals.
The governor's office told Caltrans to research what could be done. The agency's regretful conclusion: a tangle of state and federal laws prevent it from even trying to sponsor them.
"There's a great shortage of skilled engineers in the country," said Bruce Blanning, executive assistant for the Professional Engineers in California Government, the union that represents Caltrans engineers and supports obtaining green cards for the foreign engineers.
Blanning is skeptical of Caltrans' conclusion. He said he believes the agency could make a good case to federal labor and immigration authorities that California needs these engineers and that they should be given legal permanent residency.
"These guys don't just do gutters and street corners," he said of the engineers. "They do the big jobs."
Canadian native D'Arcy McLeod has been a Caltrans engineer for six years, during which the agency has spent thousands of dollars to keep him current on training, just as they do with all of the agency engineers.
Supervisors were so pleased with his performance, they asked McLeod if he knew any skilled classmates in Canada who would like jobs here, too.
He recruited seven.
Today, six of McLeod's former Canadian classmates have already come and gone because Caltrans did not sponsor them for green cards.
"It perplexes me that the state would invest in individuals who are legally working here, and then not allow them to stay. You're losing historical knowledge, you're losing that investment," said McLeod, who has been responsible for making key freeway arteries such as Highway 80 safer. He has only two years left on his second H-1B visa, a permit that is good for three years and can be renewed only once.
Caltrans is the United States' largest state transportation department, with about 8,500 engineers, but it is short 500 engineers even before a predicted expansion of projects in the future.
If a $19.9 billion transportation bond in November's election passes, demand for skilled engineers will dramatically increase.
In the past decade, Caltrans, like many private companies, has coped with the shortage of U.S. engineers by recruiting Canadians, Indians, Mexicans and other foreigners who have studied at U.S. universities or at respected institutions abroad.
Competition for competent engineers is so stiff that foreign engineers are often offered jobs in the private sector that pay more than public agencies such as Caltrans and eventually lead to green cards.
At least three former Caltrans foreign engineers have gone to work for private consulting firms that sponsored them for green cards and put the engineers back to work on Caltrans projects as contract employees, according to the Professional Engineers in California Government.
Each private engineer who works on a Caltrans project costs about $75,000 a year more than a Caltrans employee would -- costs that could escalate as the shortage prompts Caltrans to hire more private consultants.
Caltrans managers asked Schwarzenegger's administration for guidance two years ago, saying: "Do something about this," said David Anderson, a Caltrans public information officer.
Schwarzenegger spokesman Darrel Ng said the governor's office has since accepted Caltrans' findings that it would be tough -- despite the shortages -- to meet requirements for sponsoring foreign engineers for permanent residency.
Kempton, the Caltrans director, declined to discuss the green card issue. Mark DeSio, Caltrans deputy director of public information, explained the agency's position in written answers to questions.
Kempton told the governor's office and the California Department of Personnel Administration, which handles hiring policies, that "losing employees after six years of training and development erodes the department's qualified workforce and impairs its ability to meet project delivery goals," DeSio wrote.
To hire a foreigner on a temporary H-1B professional visa, employers, private or public, must pay a prevailing wage, but they do not have to prove they could not find a U.S. citizen or legal resident to hire instead.
To sponsor someone for an employment-based green card, however, employers must advertise a job first and prove to the U.S. Labor Department they could not find a qualified U.S. worker.
Caltrans has concluded that if it were to begin that screening process, it would be forced to hire any minimally qualified U.S. applicant who had passed a California state exam and was listed on a state civil service list.
Caltrans says it suspects that before permanently hiring foreign engineers, it might instead have to hire inexperienced or even poorly qualified U.S.-based applicants.
Most of these LCAs were filed by "Robert S. Graham." Why is he not mentioned in the article?