Playing the Numbers Game

Given that much of the IT industry is based on information design, structure and logic, it's ironic that a report last year by the Washington-based National Research Council (NRC) could find "no analytical basis" on which to offer recommendations about increases or decreases in the H-1B visa cap.

The necessary data about IT workforce numbers, shortages and H-1B candidates wasn't available from industry groups, employers or the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

"Government data collection methods are too static to keep up with changing IT professions, and corporate and association data reflected only a partial view of the problem," says Alan Merten, president of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and chairman of the NRC committee that produced the report.

As for the INS, the only keeper of statistics on H-1Bs, Merten noted that the agency sees its primary role as case processor. "It doesn't see the role of the H-1B program in a bigger picture."

Still, after reviewing various data sources and collection methodologies, the committee settled on an estimate of about 5 million IT workers now in the U.S. Of those, the committee classified 2.5 million as Category 1 positions - computer scientists, software engineers, and programmer/analysts.

Then, at the behest of Congress, the INS last June published a report of H-1B occupations based on a sampling of petitions it approved in the first five months of fiscal 2000. While the report calculated that computer-related occupations accounted for 54% of those H-1Bs, subcategories within that occupational group were ill-defined. Still, it appears that many H-1B holders fill Category 1 positions.

For example, H-1B employers use the job code "030" for systems analysis and programming occupations. INS statistics don't break that broad category down any further. Also, the INS report says its architecture, engineering and surveying category includes computer and systems engineers. The numbers for potential computer-related job subcategories suggest that nearly 65% of H-1B visas could go to technology professionals.

How Many Are Here?

Then there's the question of how many H-1B visa holders are part of the U.S workforce. Regulations governing the maximum annual number of visas to be issued haven't proved inviolate.

The INS admits to miscounting H-1B visa petitions in fiscal 1999 (Oct. 1, 1998, to Sept. 30, 1999). Based on an audit by KPMG Consulting LLC in New York, the agency concluded that it had approved 136,888 visa petitions that year, or 21,888 more than were permitted by the cap of 115,000.

The INS stopped accepting petitions for the 115,000 visas allotted for fiscal 2000 by March 21 last year; however, more than 30,000 petitions were still in the processing pipeline. Under the new regulations approved last October, those petitions don't count against either the fiscal 2000 limit or the new fiscal 2001 limit of 195,000 visas.

A spokesman says the INS has no up-to-date statistics available on the number of new H-1B petitions received for fiscal 2001 to date; however, through Jan. 5, the U.S. Department of Labor had received just under 5,500 Labor Certification Applications for fiscal 2001 H-1B petitions.

That said, by the close of fiscal 2000, nearly 542,000 H-1B holders may have been in the U.S. The INS doesn't track terminated or expired visas, so some of those visa holders may have gone home or gained citizenship.

Assuming future accurate INS counts, by 2004, when the H-1B cap is scheduled to drop back to 65,000, more than 930,000 H-1B holders could be part of the workforce.

"We didn't come up with any red-flag percentages about how many H-1B professionals in the IT workforce would be too many," says Merten.

Also, $1,000 of the nonrefundable $1,110 fee that must accompany each H-1B petition is being set aside for a grant fund for training more U.S. workers in highly skilled positions. That adds up to a pot of at least $585 million, given the availability of 585,000 visa slots during the next three years.

While changes in the law last year put some skilled professionals, including nurses, in their own visa category, those estimates do include non-IT professionals - and a few hundred fashion models, who lobbied to remain in the H-1B category. Still, if INS samples hold true, in 2004, more than 500,000 H-1B workers may hold IT jobs. They would also make up about 10% of the total IT workforce - a calculation consistent with predictions by the NRC study and research firm Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

Tech and H-1B

H-1B petitions by detailed computer-related occupations, (Data from 81,262 H-1B original petitions and petition extensions approved from October 1999 through February 2000 only)




Systems analysis and programming



Electrical/electronics engineering






Architecture, engineering and surveying



Miscellaneous professional, technical and managerial



Mechanical engineering



Computer systems technical support



Data communications and networks



* By Labor Certification Application code supplied by employer

Watson is a freelance writer in Chicago.
Computerworld H-1B Feature Stories:
The New Immigration Wave
Twice as many H-1B workers are entering the U.S. as two years ago, primarily taking technology jobs.

Land of Plenty
Why do H-1B workers or job candidates want to participate in the program? Opportunities.

Computerworld's H-1B and Immigration Research/Resource Links:

H-1B and Immigration Resources
A list of resources from around the Web with more information about H-1B visa programs and U.S. immigration policies.

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