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Midwest Increasingly Relies on H-1B Engineers

Susan Hall

A new report from the Brookings Institution examining hiring patterns in the H-1B visa program finds the Midwest increasingly relying on foreign-born engineers and scientists.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines made up 64 percent of all H-1B requests, even though they accounted for only 5.4 percent of U.S. employment in 2010. And U.S. universities award only 4 percent of the world's undergraduate degrees in engineering.

While Silicon Valley still tops the list in requests for H-1B workers, demand is growing in cities such as Columbus, Ind., and Fayetteville, Ark., reports Businessweek. Columbus is home to Cummins Inc., which designs, and manufactures diesel and natural gas engines. Walmart's global headquarters is near Fayetteville in Bentonville.

Kansas City ranked 38th on the list with 1,527 H-1B visa requests, with 878 of them for positions in computer science and 134 in engineering, according to The Kansas City Star.

Microsoft was the top employer seeking H-1B visas requesting an annual average of 4,109 during the 10-year period. India's Tata Consultancy Services ranked No. 2, requesting an average of 3,179 visas and Arlington, Va.-based Deloitte Consulting was third, seeking an average 2,981.

In cities home to major corporations, such as Columbus, Ind.,  and Seattle, Wash., the requests unsurprisingly come from private employers subject to the annual visa cap of 65,000. In areas such as Durham, N.C., and Ann Arbor, Mich., the demand is driven by universities and other research institutions exempted from the cap, the report says. In other areas, there's a mix of the two.

The national average is 2.4 H-1B requests per 1,000 U.S. workers. In San Jose, employers requested 17.1 H-1B workers for every 1,000 domestic employees. Columbus ranked No. 2, with 14.6 H-1B requests; Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., was third with 9.79; and Trenton, N.J., fourth with 8.46.

At the same time, San Jose’s economic development agency recently reported that some 1,800 unemployed engineers seeking work had registered with a city  program, Wired reports, again raising the argument that H-1Bs are used to bring in cheap labor. The Brookings report, however, did not look at available talent in the 106 metropolitan areas studied, only at H-1B demand.

The report found that demand for H-1Bs exceeds supply, pinning the worker shortage largely on inadequate funding to train U.S. workers. The Star quotes Jill Wilson, co-author of the report. saying:

Currently, H-1B visa fees are designed to support workforce technical skills training. Our research shows that these funds, however, are not distributed proportionately to the areas that have the highest demand for H-1B  workers.

The authors urged lawmakers to treat the issue as local, setting the H-1B cap to meet the needs of regional economies. Wired quotes study co-author Neil Ruiz, saying:

Washington is broken – they always use ideology and get nowhere. Facts at the local level can be used to create real, informed policies removed from politics so we can actually grow as a nation.

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