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Technology firms prepare for rush to nab limited visas

It’s an annual rite of spring for the nation’s technology companies: getting in line to obtain special visas to hire skilled workers from outside the United States.

On April 1, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services will begin accepting applications for the so-called H-1B visas. A total of 85,000 are available, but probably not for long. Last year the quota was filled in less than a week, a much faster pace than in previous years, when a moribund US economy stifled demand for high-tech workers.

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In a press release issued on Tuesday, immigration services predicted that it would receive more than enough applications to fill this year’s quota by April 7.

Companies, rather than individuals, apply for H-1B visas in order to bring foreign workers with special skills into the United States to work, for anywhere from three to six years. The US government offers 65,000 H-1B visas each year, with an additional 20,000 available for foreigners with advanced academic degrees. While open to any kind of worker with special skills — chefs or artists, for instance — high-tech companies usually claim the lion’s share of the visas.

Teradyne Inc. of North Reading, a major producer of equipment for companies that make microchips, expects to apply for eight visas. Wayne Grout, the company’s human resources representative, said many will go to foreign-born college students from schools such as Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts.

“We’re just looking for the most qualified folks,” said Grout. “If you look at the proportion in the engineering schools, there are less citizens that are going into those disciplines.” Some of the students already have jobs at Teradyne, but will have to return to their countries when their student visas expire, unless the company can keep them on as H-1B workers.

Kayak.com in Concord, a popular online travel site, brought six H-1Bs on board in 2013 and expects to sign up more this year. “We’ve seen a shortage of top engineering talent, even in today’s very competitive job market,” said Giorgos Zacharia, the company’s chief technology officer. “We’ve had dozens of open positions for some time, despite our competitive salaries and desirable company culture.”

But LogMeIn Inc., a Boston company that provides online storage and remote control software, is sitting out the H-1B rush. Spokesman Craig VerColen said that the company grew its Massachusetts head count by 20 percent last year and plans to grow even faster in 2014. LogMeIn is hiring sales and marketing people, as well as software engineers for research and development. But it expects to fill all its positions with US-born workers.

Critics of the H-1B program say there are plenty of unemployed or underemployed Americans with advanced technical skills. Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, said companies use the program to fill their ranks with lower-paid foreign workers.

“The solution is to raise the wage floor so it’s not used for cheaper workers,” said Hira.

The immigration reform plan passed last year by the US Senate included provisions that would have raised the wages of many H-1B workers. It also required companies to make good-faith efforts to recruit US workers before applying for the visas. The plan would also have increased the annual quota to as many as 180,000 visas. But the reform bill has stalled in the House of Representatives.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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