Been waiting to start those H-1B visa applications? Get cracking or you'll be waiting until 2015.
The application window for new H-1B visas opens on April 1, and strong demand will likely exceed the federally mandated cap -- 65,000 new visas for foreign workers, plus an additional 20,000 visas reserved for people with advanced degrees -- on the same day, according to labor lawyer Shanon Stevenson.
Stevenson, a partner at Fisher & Phillips who specializes in immigration law, noted that US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will usually keep the window open for at least five business days to allow for weather-related delays and other issues. That means the agency will accept valid applications until at least April 7 even if it's already over the cap; a lottery system determines who gets approved when the number of applications exceeds the supply of visas. Suffice it to say, though, that stragglers won't have much luck -- if you miss the window, you'll need to wait until April 1, 2015, to try again since USCIS only accepts new applications once a year.
Stevenson's prediction echoes other experts who expect significant demand for new H-1B visas this year, matching or surpassing 2013, when USCIS received 124,000 new petitions in less than a week before closing the window.
"I think this year it's going to be even more," Stevenson said in an interview. She noted increased interest among both existing clients who have previously sponsored H-1B visas on behalf of prospective employees and new clients who are doing so for the first time. "Just based on the increase we're seeing in our workload... and what we're hearing from other immigration lawyers, we think the cap will be reached just like it was last year within the first five business days of filing."
A steadily improving economy is one factor; new H-1B applications tend to rise and fall in concert with overall hiring and other economic trends. A bigger factor is -- you guessed it -- a shortage of domestic technology skills, according to Stevenson, which, paired with increased hiring overall, will fuel new H-1B petitions.
"The main one is the overwhelming demand for technology workers," Stevenson said. (H-1B visas aren't reserved solely for technology jobs, though they typically drive much of the demand.) She pointed to the White House's emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, for instance, as a sign of poor IT skills development in the US. Stevenson said that some of her firm's clients struggle to find even qualified entry-level talent for certain tech jobs. "We're just not having enough of our US students enrolling in STEM degree programs," Stevenson said. "Not having enough US workers who are trained in the STEM fields, that's where the main demand is coming from."
[For more on entry-level IT jobs, see: 25 Most Lucrative Internships: Tech's Big Spenders.]
Three IT job categories will lead the H-1B charge this year: software engineering, information security, and big data. "Software engineer" has long been the preferred H-1B term for candidates who can develop everything from internal systems to, more recently, customer-facing mobile apps. "It covers a wide variety of job titles," Stevenson said.
The need for qualified security pros has been on the rise, Stevenson said, for perhaps obvious reasons -- each new data breach underscores the long-term need for better IT security. That requirement will only grow as more and more devices go online in the so-called Internet of Things era. Stevenson has worked in immigration law for 17 years, with a particular focus on technology, and said this year's demand for qualified security talent is unprecedented.
And while the buzz around big data may already have reached fever pitch, Stevenson noted a growing interest among employers in hiring candidates with advanced degrees in statistics to help mine that information for actual business value. "A lot of companies who may not have hired statisticians in the past, whether it's in information technology or just in business analysis positions, they're [now] hiring workers with masters degrees in statistics," Stevenson said, adding that some employers are even looking for candidates with PhDs. "It's a really hot field right now and there are just not enough US students enrolling in stats, I'm afraid," Stevenson said.
To put it mildly, the H-1B process tends to be a divisive topic. Detractors say it replaces American workers with foreign ones, among other complaints.
"Our employers want to hire US workers, but they're just having a hard time finding anyone, especially [with STEM backgrounds], who can fill these positions," Stevenson said. "A lot of them will go to great lengths to hire [domestically before looking abroad]."
While some misperceptions do surround the H-1B visa, the potential for fraud isn't one of them. Last year, for example, Infosys paid a record-breaking $34 million to settle allegations of "systemic visa fraud and abuse of immigration processes." Those allegations included knowingly using B-1 visitor visas, which are issued for short-term business travel, to circumvent the H-1B process.
Stevenson said such cases encourage increased scrutiny of employers with H-1B visa-holders on their payrolls. USCIS officers can show up unannounced, at any time, to conduct onsite audits, which include inspecting pay stubs and working conditions, ensuring that employees are performing the duties they were hired for, and other checks, Stevenson said.
Meanwhile, Stevenson said the best way for employers to manage stiff competition for H-1B visas is rather simple: Don't procrastinate. Stevenson's desk already has a stack of completed applications ready for FedEx pickup on April 1. She added that employers need to remember that successful H-1B candidates can't start working until October 1; the process isn't intended for filling immediate labor gaps. Missing the April 1 window this year would mean the earliest a new H-1B worker could start would be October 1, 2015.
"[The process] really requires employers to look at their hiring needs for the next one-and-a-half years and predict what contracts and which projects are going to be coming through the door that they're going to need these workers for," Stevenson said.
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