East Valley companies that have relied on highly skilled foreign employees through a work permit program could see that labor pool shrink dramatically in two months.
On Oct. 1, the federal government will drop the number of H-1B nonimmigrant temporary worker visas nationwide from 195,000 to 65,000. The reduction means that U.S. companies may have a tougher time getting the number of visas they need to hire engineers, computer programmers, nurses and other high-demand workers, many of whom are graduating from local universities as foreign students.
In Arizona, 4,750 people hold H-1B visas, allowing them to work in the United States for six years, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Nationwide, 60 percent are from India. More than half have bachelor's degrees, and nearly 40 percent are working in computer and information technology-related positions.
"We're going to have to look harder in more places to find candidates," said Lisa Chasse, human resources manager for Inter-Tel, a Tempe-based telecommunications company. "It's just going to make them more difficult to find here."
The reduction returns the number of H-1B visas to levels before 1999. To accommodate hiring demands during a booming economy, Congress passed legislation raising the cap to as high as 195,000 until the end of fiscal 2003. The law also established a $500 fee for each visa to fund education and training for U.S. workers.
To prepare for the reduction, Maricopa County is trying to access those fees by applying for a $3 million federal grant for training current employees and the unemployed. By increasing their skills, local job candidates become more competitive and companies may rely less on highly educated workers from overseas, said Suzanne Ledy, the county's H-1B grant coordinator.
"It has not only an impact for work-force development, but it also has an economic impact because we're growing the work force," she said.
The county was awarded the grant once before, and 346 people have graduated so far from Arizona State University and other schools. If the county is awarded the grant again this year, up to 600 people from 11 companies, nearly all of which have a presence in the East Valley, will be able to take advantage of training programs in engineering, manufacturing, biotechnology and information technology.
"We prefer to keep the jobs in the country," said David Curtis, director of technical applications support for Banner Health, which hopes to provide technology training to employees through the second grant. "By providing employment training to the local population without having to bring someone in from overseas, it means Maricopa County can have less need to import the kind of talent we could grow in our own back yard."
The reduction in visas comes at a time when businesses have shrunk their work forces, company representatives said. Nonetheless, companies such as Intel Corp., which is participating in the county's training program, said they will still be challenged by the drop in available worker visas. While job training helps, positions requiring specialized skills such as advanced process engineers remain hard to fill, said Tracy Koon, a spokeswoman for Intel.
The problem is linked to the nation's educational system, which does not do enough to develop math and science skills at an early age, said Margaret Sova, program manager for Intel's manufacturing research committee.
"We need scientists in order to stay leading-edge," she said. "It's hard to play catch-up when you're a freshman in college."
The result is growing demand and lagging supply of people with advanced technical skills, which forces companies to recruit people from outside the United States, Koon said. Critics have charged that the H-1B program takes jobs away from U.S. citizens, but the program is symptomatic of bigger educational problems in this country, she said.
"We're turning out fewer and fewer of these (technically skilled) people," Koon said. "It really is a budding national catastrophe."