H-1B demand spike may signal improving outlook for skilled pros

WASHINGTON -- Demand for H-1B visas has accelerated over the last six to eight weeks after being flat for months. This comes as the number of companies planning to increase college hiring is also on the rise. Together, the trends may be early indicators of an improving economy for skilled professionals.

Throughout summer and into September, demand for H-1B visas flatlined at about 45,000 visa petitions. But on Friday, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service released data showing that in two weeks alone it had received 3,300 H-1B petitions, continuing a spike that began in October that has increased the number of visas petitions to 58,900, approaching the 65,000 cap.

A separate H-1B cap of 20,000 for foreign workers who have earned an advanced degree from U.S. universities was reached in October.

If this demand for visas continues, the H-1B cap for the 2010 fiscal year may be met in a matter of days to early next year, according to estimates from a number of immigration attorneys.

An improving economic outlook and confidence in hiring may be driving this increase. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), an organization whose members include large companies of 7,000 employees or more that include tech firms, said that in its member survey for November that 28% of respondents planned to increase college hiring, compared with 17% in August.

"College hiring has started to look better, much better than it did," said Ed Koc, who heads research at association. He said that anywhere from one-third to half of students in graduate programs are foreign nationals.

Koc also points out that the unemployment rate for college graduates holding bachelor's degrees in October was 4.7%, down from 4.9% in September, according to U.S. labor data.

Sarah Hawk, who heads the immigration practice at Fisher & Phillips LLP in Atlanta, said she see a clear correlation between H-1B petition increases and student hiring. Companies that have workers on student visas are applying for H-1B visas in anticipation of improved budgets.

But Hawk and other immigration attorneys say the H-1B demand is now broader, and includes many occupations outside of IT.

Vic Goel, of Goel & Anderson LLC in Reston, Va., said he has seen an increase in H-1B visa petitions in the last six to eight weeks, but also "a significant overall decline in the number of H-1Bs that we are filing for pure play IT positions." But he said, "I have seen slight increases in cases for school teachers, engineers, management analysts, product development roles [and other positions.]"

Brian Graham, of Strasburger & Price LLP in Dallas, said the increase in demand started in October. He is seeing "more interest in new hiring all across the board in different industries," including high-tech, nursing, and, in particulr, gaming development such as for multi-player games.

Goel said there are some procedural reasons behind this increase. Companies that had foreign employees in the U.S. working on L-1B visas are, in some cases, moving these employees to H-1B visas because its standards are clearer and it offers more certainty about an employee's ability to work in the U.S. Goel also points out that once the immigration agency started demanding more documentation in support of H-1B visas this summer, many employers were caught off-guard and saw their petitions denied or moved to withdraw them.

"Many of those cases are now being re-filed since the employers have been able to gather the requested evidence in the intervening months," Goel said.

Seasonal demand may also be at work. H-1B petitions are also being filed for students who completed degree requirements this semester. Employers may also be acting now rather than risk waiting to next year and the possibility of a visa lottery, if demand exceeds the cap. The H-1B visa is at the heart of an intense debate.

Opponents view H-1B hiring as means to bring in young workers at lower wages and deprive U.S. workers of jobs, which was one of arguments made by the Programmers Guild in its lawsuit challenging an extension of the student visa program. Business proponents say they should be able to hire foreign students as easily as U.S. students.

Offshore firms in India depend on the visa to conduct business in the U.S., a practice that may be curbed if legislation by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) if a bill they get that limits visa holders, including L-1 visas, to half of workforce. The Indian firms see any effort to restrain visas as a trade issue; Grassley and Durbin have called it " legal discrimination ."

Regardless of reasons for or against the visa, Randall Sidlosca, an immigration attorney at Miami-based Fowler White Burnett PA, says he believes an improving economy is behind more H-1B petitions, because some of his clients are planning to ramp up their operations in 2010.

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