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  About 60% of all H-1B visa professionals are being grabbed up by only 20 companies. How do you get in on the action? Try these shortcuts around the red tape

  By Julia King  

No Time Like the Present
For companies that aren't already targeting H-1B visa candidates, it may be too late

The government has yet to decide whether thousands of extra H-1B visas mistakenly issued in fiscal 1999 will be deducted from this year's quota of 115,000.

But assuming that they are and that the number of new applications keeps pace with previous years, experts predict that the cap could be reached as early as February a full eight months short of the end of the fiscal year. This includes the estimated 20,000 visas that the INS approved last year but couldn't issue because it already had reached the 1999 limit in April.

This makes starting the process early all the more critical.

"Advanced planning is the key," says Julie Emerick, a Chicago-based immigration attorney. "I have companies project how many software engineers they'll need for the entire year and file labor condition applications not for just one position, but for 10 engineers."

Other experts recommend that companies apply now for H-1B visas for those workers they want to retain but who are now working under F-1 visas. These are one-year visas granted to foreign students who graduated from U.S. universities.

"Before, we may have waited for an F-1 visa to almost expire," said Suzy Nisbet, human resources manager at SAS Institute in Cary, N.C. "But now, we're filing almost immediately because we don't know when the cap will hit."

Julia King
November 8, 1999     Between now and next October, 115,000 new foreign workers are expected to enter the U.S. to work on H-1B employment visas. At least six out of every 10 will probably head to high-tech companies, which currently remain critically short of skilled IT workers.

On the surface, the process of securing an H-1B visa for a prospective employee from abroad is pretty straightforward. After finding a foreign national candidate for a specific job, an employer certifies it will pay the worker the prevailing U.S. wage. The company then files an H-1B visa application with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which is supposed to take between 30 and 45 days to review and either approve or reject the visa request.

That's on the surface.
But dig just a little deeper and plenty of logistical complexities begin to emerge. First is beating out the thousands of other U.S. employers that also are looking to obtain visas for foreign workers. Compound that with the fact that about 60% of H-1B candidates are hired by just 20 companies that have lots of experience doing this.

What are your odds for getting in on this action? Well, the visa cap for fiscal 2000, which ends Sept. 30, 2000, is 115,000 for all workers, including much-needed information technology professionals. But last year, when the cap was also 115,000, the visas ran out by April 9. The year before that, a cap of 65,000 was met by May (see related article above).

Making matters worse this year are reported computer system problems at the INS, which the agency says may have caused it to mistakenly issue as many as 20,000 more H-1B visas than it should have for fiscal 1999. Whether the overage will be deducted from this year's quota is still unknown [Page One, Oct. 11].

The months ahead will likely bring more of the same problems, experts say. "They are definitely going to run out [of available visas], especially if they count the screwed-up visas granted last year to the cap for fiscal 2000," says Carl Shusterman, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles.

That makes filing a complete and accurate application the first time around all the more critical, experts say. Companies can't afford to lose days, weeks and even months going back and forth among job candidates, attorneys and the INS for information.

"INS says processing time is between 30 and 45 days once they get an application, but now they are running very, very behind schedule. It's taking two times that amount of time," says Suzy Nisbet, human resources manager at SAS Institute Inc., a software firm in Cary, N.C.

Top 20 Companies Employing H-1B Workers
Mastech Corp.
Tata Consultancy Services
Computer People
Oracle Corp.
PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP
Lucent Technologies Inc.

Motorola Inc.
Syntel Inc.
Comsys Technical Services
Deloitte & Touche LLP
KPMG Peat Marwick LLP
Cisco Systems Inc.
Keane Inc.
Ernst & Young LLP
Intel Corp.
SAI Software Consultants Inc.
Indotronix International
Complete Business Solutions Inc.
Computer Horizons Corp.

Together, these firms account for approximately 60% of all
H-1B visas applied for and approved in fiscal 1998 (ended Oct. 1, 1998, which is the most recent data available)

Source: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, Washington
Still, Nisbet and other experienced hiring managers and immigration attorneys say there are steps employers can take to speed the process and increase their chances of securing the H-1B visas they need to bring foreign-born workers on board to fill programmer, IT consultant and statistician positions this fiscal year.

The process of obtaining an H-1B visa essentially involves the following steps:

Here are some tips for speeding the process along:

Use the Department of Labor's fax-back system to obtain a labor condition application.

After countless hassles and snafus, several attorneys report that this system seems to be working and that it's the fastest way to obtain a labor condition application, which is a prerequisite to petitioning the INS for an H-1B. The Web-based form is filled out online and sent back electronically by the attorney or employer, who must certify that the candidate will be paid the prevailing wage for his work at the U.S. company. What's faxed back is a computer-coded H-1B application, which will be filed with the INS. Several

The INS is running very, very behind schedule, says Suzy Nisbet, human resources manager at SAS Institute, a software company in Cary, N.C.

attorneys, including Julie Emerick, a Chicago-based immigration attorney, report receiving the H-1B application back in less than a week, compared with several weeks or longer previously.

Apply for H-1B visas only on behalf of candidates who can easily pass the INS's education and experience requirements.

H-1B candidates must have at least the equivalent of a U.S.-issued bachelor's degree in computer science or a closely related field. At SAS, Nisbet says the company looks for a degree plus at least six months of experience. For an accurate comparison, she also suggests obtaining English translations of all of a candidate's credentials, including academic records, diplomas, degrees and transcripts.

Substitute previous job experience for qualified candidates lacking academic degrees.

The INS allows three years of professional experience to compensate for each year of university-level studies. "If a candidate has six years of work experience, it could translate into two years of college," says Shusterman. But the INS is looking for highly detailed and specific information. "They don't want to see a two-line letter stating that 'Joe Smith was here for three years and we were very pleased with his performance,' " Shusterman notes. Instead, the documentation should include full descriptions of the kinds of projects on which the candidate worked, what computer programming languages he used, whom the candidate reported to, how much the candidate was paid and how the projects fit into the previous company's overall business.

Top 10 Countries of Origin of H-1B Workers
FY 1998
First Half FY 1999
United Kingdom
United Kingdom

Source: For all professions, as reported by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Washington Get out of the middle.
Too many companies have their human resources group function as the liaison between IT candidates and the company or outside attorney, who ultimately files the H-1B application and shepherds it through the INS on behalf of the employer. This wastes valuable time. Send the candidate a copy of your company's annual report. That way, he can fill out those parts of thevisa application that require specific information about your company, such as location or lines of business. Also, provide the attorney with copies of the candidate's résumé, academic records and letters of reference. Having candidates and attorneys work directly with one another can shave weeks from the application process, experts say.

File early, but expect to wait.

So Many Workers, So Little Time
The H-1B visa cap was hit almost five months sooner in fiscal 1999 than in 1997, when 50,000 fewer were available.
Sept. 1
11 months
May 11

7 months
April 9
6 months

Source: For all professions, as reported by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Washington
Because the government is involved, expect the process to take longer than it's supposed to take, says Andy Hafer, director of information management at Tampa, Fla.-based Hydro Agri North America Inc. "It just takes time, and you're never quite sure exactly why," Hafer says. "It's the same as when you order something from an infomercial. It takes six to eight weeks for delivery, but you're never quite sure why."

If the foreign worker is outside of the U.S. after the INS approves the H-1B petition, the individual must apply for a visa to come to his new position in the U.S. The U.S. consular posts in foreign countries issue the visas.

If the person is already in the U.S. but working for another employer, Emerick says, the INS must also approve the new employer, because an H-1B visa is employer-specific, job-specific and location-specific.

King is Computerworld's national correspondent.