Is the U.S. Too Hungry for Foreign Workers?

Companies may be overstating their need to tap foreign workers for specialized jobs in the United States.

There are 1.34 qualified domestic workers for every one position where a company has indicated an intent to hire a foreign worker through the H-1B visa program, according to data from employment site Bright.com. In some fields, like financial analysis, there are as many as 12 qualified American candidates for every job a company claims they need to fill with an H-1B worker.

That raises doubts about a key argument for proponents of federal immigration reform: that companies need looser rules to import overseas workers because there aren't enough job candidates in the United States who can fill specialized skills, namely in science, technology and engineering.

"We had expected to find many areas where there was an insufficient supply" of domestic workers, said David Hardtke, chief scientist for Bright, based in San Francisco. "But what we found was much more nuanced."

Bright used its database of roughly a million active resumes over the past 45 days and created dummy job descriptions based on so-called labor condition applications, or LCAs, filed by companies in the second quarter. LCAs aren't actually H-1B visa applications, but they indicate an intention on the part of a company to fill an opening with a foreign worker.

Then Bright matched its candidate pool with available jobs. What's more, it looked at the matching geographically. So, if a company in Troy, Mich., posted a position for a computer programmer, Bright only found qualified candidates in that geographic area.

In some areas, there was a plentiful supply of American workers to fill these jobs. For management-analyst positions, Bright had 56,460 candidates for 8,683 LCAs. There were 4.08 American job candidates for every one electronics-engineering job listed as an H-1B position.

But financial analysts take the cake, according to the data. Bright found 89,280 "good-fit" candidates in its database to fill the 7,186 jobs companies listed as H-1B positions.

H-1B visas were established to allow companies to hire foreign workers to fill jobs where domestic candidates were found to be insufficient. It is a temporary hire with a non-immigrant visa, and is supposed to be in very specialized areas, filled by candidates with a bachelor's degree or equivalent experience. In the immigration bill under consideration in Congress, the number of H-1B visas is proposed to be raised from 65,000 to 115,000, with escalators to rise until the number caps at 180,000.

Technology companies have been vocal in their support of raising the number of H-1B visas, and, while the Bright data overall show a plentiful supply of job candidates, there are some areas -- namely computer-systems analysts -- where there is still a dearth of qualified domestic workers.

But the situation is not as dire as some tech companies suggest. For instance, the Bright study showed that there are enough domestic candidates for software-development jobs (31,560) for the number of H-1B proposals (30,915) listed.

Bright's Hardtke also suggested the supply of American workers for these jobs will rise over time. The number of U.S. citizens in computer and mathematical graduate programs has grown 88 percent over the last decade, he said. Foreign students with temporary visas enrolling in those same programs is down 13 percent.

"Students have responded to the unmet need in this country," he said.

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