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High Demand For Foreign Skilled Workers in Austin

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Texas Tribune

Austin had the twelfth highest number of H-1B visa requests per capita in the last two years, according to a report issued this morning by the Brookings Institution, signaling a high demand for employees in technology and engineering. H-1B visas are temporary work permits, up to six years in length, issued to foreigners who work in specialized occupations.

Employers in Austin made 3,087 H-1B visa requests in 2010 and 2011, the report says, a rate of 3.9 applications per 1,000 workers. More than half of those requests were for computer related occupations. About 17 percent were for engineering jobs.

Most of the H-1B visa requests came from technology firms such as Dell, Advanced Micro Devices, Intel, and Freescale Semiconductor. The report did not examine how many of those permits were actually granted.

The H-1B visa program also provides training grants to cities with high demand for skilled foreign workers. But Austin has received none of that money in the last two years.  

“This is really a missed opportunity for Austin,” says Jill Wilson, a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution. “Austin could really take advantage of this opportunity to bring some of this money back home to help train some of the existing workforce to fill some of these jobs that are in high demand.”

Cities and institutions across Texas received more than $30 million in technical skills training grants through the H-1B program since October, according to the United States Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. Recipients included Tarrant County, San Antonio and El Paso.

H-1B visas are in high demand across the country. The government issues 85,000 per year. This year, they were distributed within 10 weeks.

Nationwide, almost half of H-1B visa recipients between 2000 and 2009 were from India. China, Canada, the Philippines and the United Kingdom rounded out the top five. The overwhelming majority of those permits were issued to people who work in technology and engineering professions.  

The U.S. Government Accountability Office identified several problems with the H-1B visa program last year, among them that that the program lacks effective oversight, and that employers don’t have to provide any evidence that they could have hired a U.S. worker to do the same job, as other visa programs require.

“The H-1B program, as currently structured, may not be used to its full potential and may be detrimental in some cases,” the report concluded. The GAO also found that it was difficult to determine the effect that raising the cap would have on U.S. workers.

Large corporations and some politicians have urged that the cap of 85,000 H-1B visa permits be raised or removed entirely. “[The cap] deprives our companies of the innovators they need to launch new products that create American jobs,” claimed a report last month by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bi-partisan group whose co-chairs include San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer, and News Corporation founder Rupert Murdoch.

That sentiment was seconded by Dell, the Round Rock-based company that employs 16,000 people in Central Texas.

“We’d love to see an expansion of the [H-1B] program of where it stands now,” Dell spokesperson David Frink said. “We think it would be the right approach to encouraging the best and the brightest people to stay in the United States after they get their education.” 

Not everyone agrees, however, that H-1B visas are the right approach. Jennifer Wedel, the wife of an unemployed semiconductor engineer in Fort Worth, asked President Obama during an online town hall last February why the government continues "to issue and extend H-1B visas when there are tons of Americans just like my husband with no job?" according to ComputerWorld. 

Other critics have argued that H-1B visas are used by companies to keep labor costs down by employing younger workers. "There's no question that when you look across industries, the ones that are very immigration-dependent also have an average younger age than other industries," says Harvard Business school professor William Kerr. 

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