According to steady year-over-year visa application numbers, technology companies, including some in the North Bay, continue to have a need for highly skilled foreign workers.
Much of that foreign labor is supplied through the H-1B program, an 85,000-visa annual lottery through which companies across the U.S. can sponsor specialized foreign employees to work in the U.S. for an initial period of up to three years when they can’t find an American or other authorized worker for a job.
Recent regulatory changes by the Trump administration however have made it harder to go through third party contractors to hire skilled foreigners with the visas.
Companies in the advanced technology spaces commonly use the visas, and North Bay tech mainstays like BioMarin Pharmaceutical, Keysight Technologies, Autodesk and Medtronic, have remained relatively steady in directly sponsoring H-1B worker applications in recent years.
Keysight in fiscal 2017 won 36 of the prized visas, while BioMarin took home 15. Autodesk snagged 121 during the same period, compared with Medtronic’s 148.
In fiscal 2016 Keysight drew 15, BioMarin held steady at 15, Autodesk grabbed 106, and Medtronic received 141. Companies typically apply for many more of the visas than they ultimately receive in the lottery.
The number of overall applications spiked during the recent April application season, rising to just over 201,000 total applications, up from around 190,000 the year before, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That is notable, especially since denial rates have trended up over the last few years, from 10% in fiscal 2016 to 13% in fiscal 2017 to 24% in fiscal 2018, according to the National Foundation for American Policy.
But directly sponsoring H-1B workers is not the only way to access the H-1B labor pool. Some staffing firms sponsor large numbers of the workers, then “lease” them for short periods to third party companies.
These third-party work arrangements are often set up through information technology outsourcing companies, many of which are based in India and snatch up a large portion of the available visas each year. Critics, including the Trump administration, have asserted the temporary foreign workers are used as an end run around offering full-time positions to U.S. citizens and that they undercut the wages of U.S. workers.
In June, the administration rolled out new guidance requiring detailed descriptions of what work H-1B workers at third-party work sites will do, proof of an employer-employee relationship at the work site, the length of the project they will work on, and other requirements.
According to Mark Ginnebaugh, CEO of database consulting company DesignMind in San Francisco, his clients, which include Autodesk and BioMarin, have seen their access to temporary H-1B workers sponsored through his firm severed in recent years because of the changes.
“It used to be we could find somebody who wanted to work for us as long as we were willing to sponsor them for their H-1B,” said Ginnebaugh, also the former president of the now-defunct North Bay Software and Information Technology Association.
“Now the rules are different, and they require us to show a contract with a client where we can prove that that person who is going to transfer their H-1B to our company has a project commitment of two years in length. And we never have that; we always do three months at a time,” he added.