Demand lagging among tech firms for H1-B visas

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / January 1, 2011

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American high-tech companies are hiring again, but it appears that fewer of them are looking overseas for new workers. There was a big drop in demand in 2010 for the controversial H-1B visas, long used by US technology companies to import highly skilled temporary workers, immigration officials said. Every April, the US government makes available 65,000 standard H-1B visas, and they have been quickly snapped up in past years by US companies looking to import workers. In 2008, the quota was filled in one week. Even in 2009, despite the severe recession, the quota was filled in December, nine months after the visa window opened.

But as of two weeks ago, officials reported that 11,100 visas, nearly one-fifth of the total, were still available.

There’s also lagging demand for the additional 20,000 H-1B visas specifically set aside for foreign workers with advanced degrees. The government reported that 300 of those visas had not yet been claimed.

The low demand comes as evidence builds that technology companies are expanding their payrolls. The economic research firm Moody’s Analytics says that employment at US high-tech companies increased by 47,000 jobs between January and November. By contrast, the sector lost 46,000 jobs in 2008, and 196,000 in 2009.

Russ Campanello, senior vice president of human resources at iRobot Corp., a Bedford maker of robots for consumers and the US military, said his company’s workforce is growing.

“Globally, we’ve probably hired close to 200 people this year, probably the bulk of them in the US,’’ Campanello said.

Today, iRobot employs 650 people worldwide, including about 550 US workers. Campanello said the company has been hiring electrical, mechanical, and systems engineers, as well as sales and customer service workers. But iRobot has only hired one or two H-1B workers, because it’s been able to find American citizens to fill its slots.

“People are aware of what we do and are interested in working for an industry leader,’’ Campanello said.

Steve Kasmouski, general manager of the software engineering placement group at The Winter, Wyman Cos., a Waltham employment agency, said he was surprised by the sluggish call for H-1B visas because he sees such strong demand for technically skilled workers.

“I’ve got 200 openings to fill, with a staff of 10 people,’’ Kasmouski said. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose.’’

Kasmouski said employers are probably looking to the domestic labor force because so many tech workers lost their jobs during the recession. This has made it easier for companies to find workers, which eliminates the expense of applying for H-1B visas and relocating foreign workers to the United States.

Many H-1B visas are obtained by American subsidiaries of Indian outsourcing firms, which hire skilled workers abroad, then send them to US firms as contract workers. Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology and a critic of the H-1B visa program, said that such companies may have cut back on applications because of increased scrutiny by the US Department of Homeland Security.

In September 2008, the federal agency reported that 21 percent of H-1B visas they examined had been granted on the basis of applications that contained fraudulent or inaccurate information. Since then, said Hira, the agency has begun a crackdown that features visits to job sites where visa holders are employed.

“They’re going out to verify that that person is actually there,’’ said Hira. “My guess is that some of the smaller firms are pretty spooked by it.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at