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Anyone who’s relied on the kind of talent afforded by the H-1B visa program (think programmers, engineers and scientists) is probably feeling the pain of recent changes—and struggling to fill the hiring gaps these new rules have created.
The H-1B visa program provides temporary visas to educated foreign professionals to work in “specialty occupations” – think mathematics, engineering and technology. For the tech industry, workers on H-1B visas are a huge commodity, as the U.S. doesn’t have enough skilled tech workers to meet demand.
“We’re not educating enough people in this country in IT, and if we don’t have that skills set natural-born, then we’re going to have to import that talent,” says Elizabeth Ricci, an immigration attorney with Rambana & Ricci, PLLC in Tallahassee, FL.
Unfortunately, importing those employees has recently become harder.
If you’re a recruiter or HR professional facing these new hurdles, we took a look at what’s changed, and some steps you can take to fill those roles despite the challenges.
What’s changed about H-1B visa policies?
Under changes like the current administration’s Buy American and Hire American executive order, the Department of Security is encouraged to approve H-1B visas to only the most-skilled or highest-paid beneficiaries.
Denial rates for H-1B petitions have risen significantly, from 6% in 2015 to 32% in the first quarter of 2019 for new petitions, according to an analysis by the National Foundation for American Policy.
“Immigration now is saying that ‘This position’ – usually it’s a programmer – “does not require a degree,’” Ricci says, mentioning that she received a request for evidence on an H-1B renewal application—a worker who had been approved for a visa once.
“Immigration said, ‘Prove that this position requires a degree and that the person has a degree,’” Ricci says. “I already proved that three years ago. The person’s degree hasn’t been revoked, the position is the same position, it’s the same employer, and the duties haven’t changed. It’s a ludicrous request.”
As a result, tech companies are having a harder time filling positions, since the flow of skilled workers from overseas has been hampered. Some companies are fixing the problem by leaving the U.S. There are solutions, however, that don’t involve setting up shop in Canada.
Here are a few things to consider as part of your tech hiring strategy:
Document, document, document
When you’re applying for an H-1B visa or a renewal, be thorough and overly prepared. “You want to avoid a request for evidence at all costs,” Ricci says. “It’s expensive, and it creates a delay.”
There’s also a new policy in place stating that immigration officials no longer have to issue a request for evidence: If they’re not satisfied with what’s received, they can issue an outright denial.
Document heavily from the beginning that a position requires a degree. Show ads for comparable positions in the same geographic area for similar pay that require degrees or show evidence that your company has required a degree in the past or presently. “I suggest using the language that the position is ‘sophisticated and complex,’” Ricci says.
Establish operations abroad
One lengthy workaround is to bring workers over on an L1B visa. The L1B is an intracompany transfer visa, meaning you’d need to set up a small branch in another country and then transfer workers to your U.S. location.
“So an American company opens a branch or subsidiary in, say, India, and they have a call center or an IT firm over there, and they employ those workers for a year at their foreign entity and then transfer them to the U.S. on the L1B,” Ricci says. “It’s inconvenient, and probably expensive, but at the end of that year you’ll have the worker over here if all else falls into place.”
Outsource jobs overseas
One of the helpful things about the tech industry is that a lot of the work can be performed remotely. If you can’t hire workers locally, consider hiring workers overseas who can work from there.
As a bonus, depending on the time difference, this can also mean a bump in productivity because you’re essentially working around the clock: When your local team arrives at work at 9 a.m., they can pick up the work your team overseas has been doing while they were sleeping.
“It works really well if there’s a 10- to 12-hour delta,” says Sean Dowling, partner/manager of recruiting strategy for the tech division of recruiting firm WinterWyman.
A word of caution, however: If you’re classifying workers overseas as independent contractors, you can be penalized—both in the U.S. and in the worker’s home country—if they meet tests to be considered an employee. If you’re hiring someone overseas as an employee, make sure you understand how the local employment and tax laws impact you.
Lacking skilled workers? Train employees to get them up to speed. Or pay for workers to attend a three- to four-month camp to learn skills like Java or Python.
“Reskilling is another solution tech companies are turning to, which has led to a boom in ‘coding college’ popping up across the country to assist in training workers from other industries to perform in-demand, high-tech role,” says David Armendariz, general manager of the technology division for executive recruiting firm Lucas Group.
While these technical boot camps can’t replace the years of experience and training that traditional tech candidates wield, it’s a short-term fix to help companies weather the H-1B storm.
Go where the talent is
If you’re having trouble finding the right employees in your area, consider moving or opening an office in an area with more tech workers, or near a university with a great tech degree program.
“Google and Facebook have locations in Boston and Cambridge for a reason,” Dowling says. “They’re trying to get that East coast talent that won’t go to California.”
It also pays to think outside of the major metro area box. “Kansas City just happens to have a lot of strong project managers and project leaders in dot net, due to layoffs that Sprint has had over many years,” says Harley Lippman, founder and CEO of Genesis10, a technology services firm that specializes in IT staffing and domestic outsourcing solutions.
Make your company attractive
If skilled workers are scarce in your area, it pays to make your firm look like a good option. That means offering pay or benefits that other companies can’t match, in order to hire and keep the good talent.
Facebook, for instance, offers four months of paid parental leave and a sabbatical program. Adobe offers tuition reimbursement and education incentives, plus two company-wide week-long shutdowns. Amazon offers 401(k) matching to even part-time employees, paid cell phones and fertility benefits.
“We’re also seeing [the ability to work remotely] becoming much more of a selling factor to people,” Dowling says. “We can get talent on the West coast or East coast to do work, so that’s part of the strategy, too.”
Talk to your representatives
Hiring tech talent will remain difficult until either the U.S. workforce produces more skilled workers or H-1B visa requirements ease up.
“I think all employers who are finding themselves in this position need to tell their rep in Congress that this is not working,” Ricci says. “It’s antithetical to our market, and if we’re not going to educate people in the U.S. with these skills, we must import them, or we will lose out.”