New York leads in H-1B demand

Brookings report, which examines regional use, recommends commission to advise Congress on skilled immigration policy

WASHINGTON -- The New York metropolitan area has the highest demand for H-1B workers in the United States, according to a new study that examines regional use of the work visa.

That's followed by Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and Washington metropolitan areas, according to a Brookings Institution study that maps around the country.

The study's broader mission is to explain how H-1B workers are used, where they are used, and what companies use them in 106 metropolitan areas.

Take the Columbus, Ind., metro area, for instance. That area had 629 H-1B visa requests in 2010 and 2011. The top visa employer in Columbus is Cummins Inc., an engine manufacturing company.

As part of the study, Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at Brookings and co-author of the report, interviewed officials at Cummings who told him that they need skilled workers to help develop clean technologies for engines. "They are really struggling to fill a lot of their positions," said Ruiz.

The report argues that employers in some metro areas are using temporary workers "to address what they see as a lack of high-skilled labor in the local marketplace."

That seems to be the case in Rochester, Minn., where the largest employer of H-1B visa holders is the Mayo Clinic. In 2010, the Rochester area's unemployment rate was just 1.5% among people with at least a bachelor's degree, according to the report.

"[Policy-makers] need to take into consideration what's going on at the local level," Ruiz said.

One reason for tracking regional demand for H-1B visas is to compare H-1B use to the distribution of federal training funds, said Ruiz.

The U.S. government takes some of the money it collects from H-1B fees and allocates it for skills retraining. However, Ruiz noted that "the money has not been proportionately distributed to high H-1B demand areas."

Kansas, for instance, received $5 million last year from the federal government under its H-1B Technical Skills Training Grant program. According to the Brookings report, the Wichita, Kan., metro area ranks low on the list of H-1B visa requests but is a leader in receiving retraining money.

That money is being used to pay the tuitions of 100 students who are studying science, technology, engineering and math at the bachelor's, master's or Ph.D. level.

The program's operation is seemingly simple. "The university sends us the invoice for the tuition and we pay it," said Keith Lawing, executive director of the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas, which is administering the program. The group also helps students with child care and helps them find internships.

The grant is targeted at training people for positions that are being filled with H-1B workers. Those positions include jobs in aerospace, bioengineering, computer science, electrical engineering and other technical occupations, said Lawing.

The Brookings report recommends creating a national commission to advise Congress on changes that are needed in the skilled immigration program.

The Brookings study won't quell the debate over the use of the H-1B visas, about half of which go to people in computer-related occupations.

The report, for instance, doesn't weigh in on the use of the visa by companies whose primary mission is to . It doesn't look at wages and what role they play in the geographic distribution.

The study authors acknowledge over the visa use, and say the report's intent is to provide "a new way of looking at the high-skilled immigration issue by examining the demand for H-1B visas in U.S. regional economies."

"This demand is not necessarily evidence of a high-skilled labor shortage in the native labor force, it may reflect employers' preference to hire foreign workers, or it could be in response to skills shortages," the authors said.

In assembling the report's charts showing regional H-1B use, Brookings relied on the Labor Condition Application (LCA) reports that employers must file with the U.S. Department of Labor as part of an H-1B approval process. The LCA data is broken down by geographic area.

H-1B demand by metro area in 2010-2011 broke down this way:

  • New York-Northern New Jersey: 52,921, 16.3% share.
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Calif.: 18,048, 5.5% share.
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, Calif.: 16,333, 5% share.
  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif.: 14,926, 4.6% share.
  • Washington, D.C.-Arlington-Alexandria, Va.: 14,569, 4.5% share.
  • Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, Ill.: 14,011, 4.3% share.
  • Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, Mass.: 11,541, 3.5% share.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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