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The Race for H1-B Visas Begins

Ready. Set. Go. Last week, the first business day of April marked the starting line for the race against the H-1B visa cap for fiscal year 2013, and 22,000 applications have already been filed in the first four days--the fastest rate since 2009.

The H-1B visa program is used by employers in the America to provide temporary visas for up to six years for foreigners in specialty occupations.  H-1B applicants must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, but in many instances they have master’s and doctoral degrees. 

H-1B visas are used by employers throughout America to acquire skills in information technology, science and engineering R&D, and other highly technical occupations for our nation’s major hubs of innovation and manufacturing.  From large employers in Silicon Valley to smaller ones in America’s heartland, H-1B workers provide American companies with highly specialized skills in short supply in the American workforce.

At the beginning of April, employers race against the limited number of H-1B visas that can be granted every year.  Since 2006 it has been set at 85,000 per fiscal year, which includes 20,000 that can only be used by foreigners possessing an American graduate degree. Depending on the year, H-1B visas can run out in a manner of hours, days, weeks, or months.  During the Great Recession, the cap was not reached until January 31, 2011 for fiscal year 2011.  But during years of economic growth, the cap was reached as early as April 3, 2007 for fiscal year 2008. This uncertainty of when the cap will be reached makes it difficult for employers to plan their long-term human resource strategies since they cannot predict whether a visa will be available to hire qualified candidates that happen to be foreign.

In order to better understand the innovation impacts of H-1B uncertainty, the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program will soon release a geographic analysis of H-1B workers by metropolitan area. The study, to be released in June, will provide the first-ever spatial survey of trends in H-1B visa use across metropolitan areas from 2001 to 2011. It will show which metros submit the largest share of H-1B requests and the types of occupations they are most often used for.

Also part of the analysis has been interviews with many of the top H-1B employers throughout the United States.  We have found that the uncertainty of knowing when the H-1B visa cap will be reached makes it challenging for companies to attain the best and brightest talent that the world has to offer and fill the skills gaps needed to keep America competitive.  This is especially true for highly technical occupations that require STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education.  

If one examines enrollment at America’s top graduate degree programs in the STEM fields, half or in some instances the majority of those enrolled are foreigners.   According to the National Science Foundation’s “Science and Engineering Indicators 2012,” the foreign born in science and engineering occupations tend to have higher levels of education than the U.S. native born.  This is especially true in computer and mathematical sciences and engineering where about half of those holding a doctoral degree are foreign born. 

If America wants to lead in the global economy, policymakers must examine ways for our employers to attract and retain the best that the world has to offer--whether or not they are American born. The race for employers should not be against the H-1B cap, but against competitor nations for the world’s best and brightest.