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Firms find skilled-worker visas too hard to get

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 24, 2008

On April 1, the federal government begins accepting visa applications for 65,000 skilled foreign workers. But much as it could use some extra help, Progress Software Corp. in Bedford won't be applying for any of these coveted H-1b visas.

Instead, Progress is embracing a different visa program, called L-1, that lets businesses import workers who've already been hired at their overseas offices.

"It's certainly easier than getting an H-1 visa," said Todd Tracy, the company's director of talent planning and acquisition.

Despite the slowing economy, companies still say it's hard to find enough highly skilled workers. The H-1b program was designed to help businesses hire capable foreign workers, but demand for the 65,000 visas far exceeded supply in 2007, and the same is expected this year.

Many tech companies have embraced L-1 visas as an alternative to H-1bs. Companies can apply for the visas at any time of year, and there is no limit to the number of L-1s that can be issued. The United States granted 53,000 L-1s in 2006, up 33 percent from the year 2000.

But critics of US immigration policy say some companies are misusing the L-1 program. Bob Meltzer, chief executive of Visanow.com, a Chicago company that processes US visa applications online, did not accuse Progress Software, but said, "We have found and heard lots of stories recently of companies that are really kind of abusing it."

Many of the leading recipients of L-1 visas are Indian companies like Infosys Technologies Ltd. and Wipro Ltd., labor outsourcing companies that specialize in providing foreign workers to US companies. The Indian companies' use of the visas is legal, but Meltzer thinks the L-1 program should be available only to US-based firms.

"It wasn't created to help the Indian companies," he said. "It was intended to support American companies and the American economy."

Some US companies also abuse the L-1 system, according to Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, a group that seeks to protect the jobs of US high-tech workers. While the H-1b program requires employers to pay foreign workers the prevailing US wage for a particular job, the L-1 has no such requirement. Thus an engineer brought in from, say, India, could be paid the same as in their home country, rather than the much higher pay demanded by US engineers.

"There's tens of thousands of foreign workers working in the US, and they continue to be paid in their foreign wages," said Berry.

Republican US Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democratic US Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois have filed legislation to reform the L-1 and H-1b programs. Their bill would require companies to pay a prevailing wage to L-1 visa employees and would forbid the use of L-1 visas by outsourcing companies.

Meanwhile, some in Congress favor jacking up the number of H-1b visas. Arizona Democratic US Representative Gabrielle Giffords introduced a bill last week to raise the H-1b visa quota from 65,000 to 130,000 a year. Meanwhile, US Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, filed legislation to raise the cap to 195,000 a year.

Progress officials would welcome an increase.

"We don't see any decrease in our employment needs at all," said Joe Andrews, vice president of human resources at the company, which makes programs to monitor and manage business computing activities.

But last year, US Citizenship and Immigration Service shut down the H-1b application process the day after it began, having received 133,000 applications for the 65,000 slots. The agency ended up choosing successful applicants through a computer lottery. Many in the technology sector predict a similar rush this year. Faced with such daunting odds, Progress focused instead on L-1 visas.

"The unavailability of the H-1b visas has put us in a position where I don't think it's part of our overall strategy right now," said Tracy.

Another local company, Varian Semiconductor Equipment Associates Inc., a microchip manufacturing equipment maker in Gloucester, hasn't entirely given up on H-1b visas. Company officials expect to apply for about three of them on April 1. But it's also counting on an H-1b alternative - the O visa, a special program to help companies hire foreign workers with exceptional skills. The program is sometimes used to enable foreign athletes to play for US teams; Varian uses it to hire scientists and engineers.

"Because some of the people we want to hire are PhDs and are outstanding in their field, we're able to apply for an O visa," said Varian human resources manager Bob Moore.

O visas are far less controversial than other foreign-worker visas because so few are issued - fewer than 7,000 in 2006, with another 3,700 for workers who assist the exceptional employees.

Many tech companies say they'll take their chances with the H-1b system. RSA, the security division of EMC Corp., the giant data-storage company in Hopkinton, will ask for about 10 visas.

"We expect to grow this year, and that means we need more people to do more things," said RSA president Art Coviello.

He said he is especially eager to hire foreign recruits who've recently graduated from US universities. "It just seems a shame that we have so many people coming here to get an education . . . and we end up sending them home," said Coviello.

Analog Devices Inc. of Norwood, a leading maker of signal processing chips, is also hungry for foreign graduates, though director of worldwide staffing Joe Javorski said his company has scaled back its hiring.

However, the company plans to put in about 40 H-1b applications for foreign-born technology workers who've recently graduated from US schools.

"We depend on our university hires . . . to really build the leadership of the organization 10 years down the road or so," said Javorski. "We hire from the universities in good times or bad."

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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