Thursday, July 19, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The U.S. economy is being held back because Congress has not made adjustments to a cap on visas for highly skilled workers in eight years, according to analysts from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.
The study found that employers want more temporary work visas, known as H-1B, than the government allocates, stymieing their efforts to hire foreign nationals for highly skilled, hard-to-fill jobs. Furthermore, the distribution of the visas and the ensuing visa fees, which pay for workforce training programs, do not correlate to the areas where the greatest demand is found.
Las Vegas ranked in the top 100 metro areas in requests for the temporary work visa and, much like the others, does not receive its share of job-training money for similar high-skilled jobs.
During the 2010-2011 fiscal year, there were more than 300,000 requests for H-1B visas, a program that is capped annually at 85,000. The temporary work visa typically is issued to well-educated workers in areas of high demand such as computer sciences or engineering.
“Congress must increase its responsiveness to fluctuations in H-1B visa demand,” Brookings analyst Neil Ruiz, one of the report’s authors, said Wednesday. “Demand far outstripped supply in the late 1990s, and by the time Congress acted in 2001, the dot-com bubble had already burst.”
Employers say they need a robust supply of graduates in the so-called “STEM” fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and there are not enough U.S. citizen degree holders in those fields.
The Brookings report found that 64 percent of all H-1B visa requests are for STEM positions and approximately half of all STEM degrees earned from U.S. institutions go to foreign nationals.
“The pipeline is desperately short of the type of workers that we need,” said Bill Kamela, senior director of education and workforce for Microsoft. “Washington state has the fourth-most STEM jobs and the fourth-least STEM graduates.”
The cap for H-1B visas, a program that started in 1990, stands at 65,000. There are an extra 20,000 visas for foreign nationals who graduate from a U.S. institution with a master’s degree or doctorate. Nonprofit organizations and institutions of higher learning are not subject to a cap, but those organizations make up 10 percent of all requests.
Employers can submit applications on the first business day of April for visas that take effect at the start of the federal fiscal year. The visas are approved on a first-come, first-served basis.
The fees that are collected from H-1B visa applications are redirected, in part, to workforce training programs directed by the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration and the National Science Foundation.
The Brookings study found that the grant money — totaling roughly $1 billion over the past decade — was not being effectively targeted to the regions with the highest demand. On average, high-demand metro areas received $3 per worker while low-demand metro areas got $15 per worker.
“The bottom line is that H-1B visa-supported training does not match need on the ground,” Ruiz said. “H-1B visa fees designated for workforce development have not been fairly distributed geographically.”
Not every region has the same demands. Silicon Valley is hungry for computer science and engineering majors. Rochester, Minn., the home of the Mayo Clinic, on the other hand, requests a large number of visas for employees in medical fields.
Out of the 106 metro areas fully analyzed by Brookings, Las Vegas ranked 52nd, with 780 requests for H-1B visas in 2010-11. Of all requests from the Las Vegas area, 34 percent involved computer science-related positions.
The Las Vegas metro area ranks 70th in per-capita grant money received from the H-1B program.
Bally Technologies, which designs gaming technology and computer programs, employs H-1B visa holders but would not say how many.
The company says U.S. citizens and Nevada residents take precedent, but they cannot meet their needs on domestic labor alone.
“We have 209 jobs open in the United States,” company spokesman Mike Trask said. “About 75 percent are what we consider high-tech jobs, and frankly it’s tough to find people who have this special skill set here in Las Vegas.”
Trask added that Bally scours both UNLV and UNR for computer science graduates and hopes those programs continue to grow.
The Brookings report indicates UNLV, with 34, is the largest employer of H-1B visa holders in the region.
Maryam Stevenson, an immigration attorney and political science Ph.D. candidate at UNLV who has done her doctoral research on H-1B visas, agreed that Congress has been slow to adapt visa policy to market realities.
“After 2004, we don’t see any new legislation regarding the H-1B, and as a result, it has stayed at the current cap,” she said. “In 2008 and 2009 fiscal years, the cap was hit on the first day and Congress did nothing. We had Bill Gates go before Congress to testify and request additional cap numbers, and nothing was introduced in either year. After 2004, Congress isn’t doing too well in responding to market needs.”