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U.S. Immigration Policies Drive Organizations to Turn Focus on Domestic Tech Talent

It’s 2019, and in case you haven’t heard, every company is a technology company—at least to some extent.  

Think about it: Every company needs skilled tech talent in order to function, let alone create and innovate. Where would your organization be without the technological skills needed to develop new products, gather critical data, or perform countless other tasks, large and small, in every aspect of the business? 

Since the signing of the Immigration Act of 1990, the H-1B visa program has enabled U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers to fill mostly tech-related, specialty roles when they can’t find the necessary talent domestically.   

Since the 2017 signing of the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, however, some employers say that obtaining work visas for skilled foreign workers has become more difficult. And it’s about to get tougher.  

Effective April 1, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will select H-1B applicants from one pool, selecting H-1B petitions submitted on behalf of all beneficiaries, including those who might be eligible for the advanced degree exemption, according to a USCIS statement.  

It will take some time to see the effect of these changes, which are the latest in a series of moves around stricter immigration policies. The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) has conducted a pulse survey to get a handle on how these developments are already impacting employers. What we’ve found is companies responding by intensifying their efforts to attract and retain domestic tech talent, among other shifts in talent strategy.  

Feeling the effects of immigration policies

Of the 329 respondents to the i4cp poll, 26% reported that their organizations have lost tech talent—either current employees or potential hires—as a result of stricter immigration policies that have been put in place in recent years.  

More specifically, 21% of high-performance organizations—which i4cp defines as those that consistently outperform their competitors in the marketplace—and an equal number of their lower-performing counterparts say they’ve already felt the impact of the tightening parameters.   

It’s worth noting that overall, H-1B workers represent a small percentage of the U.S. workforce—65% of respondents said H-1B holders make up 5% or less of their employee base. But it’s also worth pointing out that we’re certain to see more companies grappling with escalating tech talent shortages.  

This i4cp research sees many other companies already contending with visa-related challenges. The largest segment (82% of HPOs) say they’ve been unable to hire foreign nationals due to H-1B visas being denied. Another 23% say current employees have been subject to deportation.  

These companies also see increases in time-to-hire (90% of HPOs) and cost-of-hire (68% of HPOs), for example. In addition, 62% of these same high-performance organizations find their ability to move talent across the organization hampered by immigration policies, while 47% say they’re unable to fill critical roles as a result.  

Count global commercial construction company Pizzarotti among those struggling with the latter.    

“Because of the low availability of degreed engineers—architectural, mechanical, or construction management—the pool of qualified candidates seems to be mostly post-graduates of universities in the U.S. possessing a degree from other countries,” David Kennedy, vice president of human resources at Pizzarotti (which has U.S. headquarters in New York) recently told i4cp “Consequently, J-1s and H-1Bs are prevalent.” 

As a foreign-based company, Pizzarotti’s internal transfers are managed out of Parma, Italy.     

“However, recruiting for our field staff with an increasingly tighter market and a relatively smaller group of qualified individuals in our industry—many with H-1Bs—there is a concern from petition to receipt of the transfer, which is supposed to be 10 days, but is taking longer,” Kennedy said.

Moreover, the petition process has become more onerous, with precise documentation requirements that must be individually crafted and reviewed against the open position’s job description, says Kennedy. Such obligations, when added to internal steps such as attorney reviews of documentation, internal background checks, and drug screening, tack costly weeks on to the hiring process.

“[This length of time] is problematic,” he says, “when the staffing of key construction projects is critical to [determining] start and completion dates [that] satisfy the client.”

Companies are redirecting recruiting efforts

Hitting such snags have led close to half of the companies surveyed (48%) to switch up their strategy for attracting tech talent in response to changing immigration policies.  

Among these companies, the largest number of HPOs (41%) report that they’ve increased the number of work visa extension requests they make on behalf of current employees. 

The same percentage of high-performance organizations say they are redirecting their focus on recruiting talent within the U.S. (compared to 14% of lower performers who said the same).  

Some survey respondents expressed uncertainty as to what steps to take. And others shared cynical takes on the reasons for hiring foreign nationals.     

“I’m not sure what the answer is [regarding] H-1B visas,” a survey respondent commented.

“The program is obviously a way for employers to hire cheaper foreign workers, but at what price? Employers seem to be using the H1-B program to enhance corporate profits rather than to address a shortage of workers.” 

Observers say changes to the H-1B application process could exacerbate the tech talent shortage, or could eliminate some U.S.-based tech jobs altogether.  

In a recent L.A. Times article , for instance, one expert said that changes to the H-1B visa application process could “discourage high-skilled workers from seeking employment in the U.S.,” while the temporary halt on fast-tracking applications (for a $1,500 fee) has resulted in a backlog, with some petitions going unanswered for as long as nine months.

“The immigration agency is creating more work for themselves—and then they say they’re falling behind,” Philadelphia-based immigration attorney William Stock told the Times. In the past, processing times of more than six months were rare, according to Stock, who says that some of his corporate clients have already sent some tech jobs to locations such as Canada and India rather than the U.S.  

In Silicon Valley, the deep South, and all points in between, attracting the best tech talent is already a significant challenge; an uphill climb that’s only going to get steeper as the shortage of this talent—and the political maneuvering around immigration continues. If the question of how and where to find the technical expertise your organization needs doesn’t register as a serious concern at the moment, it might be time you gave it some serious thought.

Download the survey results (i4cp members only).