A surge in demand for special visas that companies use to bring highly skilled workers to the United States could indicate waves of new hiring.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services said Friday that it has received about 42,000 requests for its standard H-1B visas since it began accepting applications April 2. That is far more than the 11,200 requests filed during roughly the same period last year.
The agency sets an annual quota of 65,000 of the H-1B visas. Companies, rather than individuals, apply for the visas in order to bring foreign workers with special skills into the country to work for three to six years. H-1B visas can be used to hire all kinds of specialized workers, but they are especially popular with computer and telecom companies.
A secondary H-1B program aimed at foreign workers with advanced degrees is also seeing a spike in demand. So far, the government has received 16,000 applications for such visas, out of a maximum annual quota of 20,000. By contrast, only about 7,900 applications had been received by this time last year.
“I think it’s a sign that the economy is improving overall,” said Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel, which represents companies that hire foreign workers. Shotwell said that while the US jobless rate remains high, “there’s a skills mismatch between the jobs that are available and the skills people have.”
Many of the H-1B visas are being used to hire foreign graduates of American universities, often with degrees in mathematics, engineering, or the sciences, said Shotwell.
Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology and a critic of US visa policy, said there is a danger in reading too much into the spike in demand for the visas. “I don’t think it’s an indicator that the economy’s picking up,” he said.
Employers might be are using the program because they are finding it much harder to bring workers to the United States under two other visa programs, known as L-1 and B-1, Hira said, “and so they’re stocking up on the H-1 visas.”
A multinational company can use an L-1 visa to bring workers from its foreign offices to a US site for five to seven years. The B-1 visa lets foreign workers visit the United States to conduct short-term business activities, like attending a conference. Such visas are usually valid for three months.
However, Citizenship and Immigration Services has mounted a crackdown on possibly fraudulent applications for the short-term visas, which it suspects companies are using to bring in workers for longer periods of time.
One effect of the heightened government enforcement has been an increase in the number of L-1 application rejections. In March, the US Chamber of Commerce, along with such US companies as data storage firm EMC Corp. in Hopkinton, software maker Microsoft Corp., aircraft builder Boeing Co., and construction equipment maker Caterpillar Inc., wrote to the Obama administration to complain that a growing number of L-1 visa requests are being delayed or denied.