Tech Industry Desperately Seeks More H-1B Visas It Already Isn't Using

Last Updated Jul 27, 2011 5:47 PM EDT

Business leaders urged the Senate to expand the H-1B visa program so they could bring in more overseas scientists and engineers to work. And a group of senators has bought in, calling for changes in immigration policy to let more highly skilled workers enter the country. There's just one tiny problem: for all the angst over a lack of visas, there are still more than 50,000 H-1Bs that have gone unclaimed for next year.

The businesses testifying were grim in their pronouncements on the impact that current government policy had on them. Microsoft (MSFT) vice-president of legal and corporate affairs Brad Smith mentioned how the company couldn't fill 4,500 jobs for lack of qualified U.S. citizens. OMX Group CEO Robert Greifeld bemoaned 17,000 foreign nationals who received their masters or doctorates leaving the U.S. to find work elsewhere.

Senators Charles Schumer, Charles Grassley, and John Cornyn were dutifully sympathetic. But you have to wonder if anyone had done a simply check on the current state of H-1B visa availability. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) keeps a current running total of how many H-1B visas are available for the coming fiscal year starting in October (link apparently only works in Internet Explorer, by the way).

Had they done so, the participants might have spent their time applying for more visas rather than testifying. Here's a USCIS table of the number as of July 22, 2011 (click to enlarge):


With little more than two months before the start of fiscal year 2012, there are still more than 50,000 H-1B visas still available: 43,400 regular H-1Bs and 6,700 for people who have an advanced degree from the U.S. And, according to USCIS, not all H-1B candidates are necessarily subject to the numeric caps, so the effective amount may be even higher.

The H-1B land grab may be over
Don't be surprised. The falling interest in H-1Bs has been building for a few years. In 2008, it took only three days to use up the quota. The following year, it took eight months. In the current fiscal year, which ends in October, the quota wasn't used up until January -- nine months after the government started taking applications.

Say, you don't think that the high tech companies might be trying to pull a fast one, using a much higher legal availability of foreign workers to help depress wages in the U.S. even though demand for the visas has fallen off dramatically, do you? Especially when there are already IT workers suing a former employer for allegedly laying off domestic workers and replacing them with people on H-1B visas?

No, I thought that seemed too cynical. Hey, maybe some of those H-1B workers can show high tech companies and legislators how to use a calculator before they decide to panic over the future of business.

Related: Image: Flickr user Ken_Mayer, CC 2.0.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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