H-1B Visa Trends: Is It the Best Visa to Fill the Skills Gap?

March 26, 2018 Chelsea Iversen

It’s undeniable that competition for the H-1B visa, the most preferred employment-based visa in U.S. immigration, has gone down recently. We have yet to see the numbers for the FY 2019 cap season, which ends in April, but 2017 H-1B visa trends show a decline: There were 37,000 fewer H-1B applications submitted last year than there were the year before.

This decline, happening at the same time as a drop in foreign STEM students in American colleges, could either be a response to higher levels of scrutiny aimed at the H-1B visa over the past year. It could also be a response to an increase in general uncertainty in American immigration in general.

Companies still struggle to fill open positions

Regardless of the apparent H-1B visa trends showing a decline in competition, employers in the U.S. are still facing a skills gap, which is expected to continue for at least several more years.

The technology sector in particular is facing an unparalleled skills gap in the U.S. according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average yearly openings in computer and mathematical occupations – including software engineering, programming and computer science – are projected to exceed 350,000 for the next eight years.

Where is this skills gap coming from?

h-1b visa trends skills gap

Part of the reason technology companies are struggling to fill open positions is that there are fewer American students graduating from STEM programs in the U.S. According to New York Times coverage of recent survey results, nearly 68 percent of students enrolled in master’s degree programs were from countries outside the U.S.

And now, there are even fewer foreign students graduating with STEM degrees from American universities. USA Today reported on recent figures released by the National Science Foundation, that there was a 6 percent drop in foreign graduate students at U.S. universities, largely in the computer science and engineering fields. The number of Indian students dropped by a staggering 19 percent between 2016 and 2017.

What does it all add up to? These numbers show that the supply of jobs is outpacing the supply of talent in the U.S., which means companies will have to either leave positions open or source even more foreign talent.

Openings can be expensive – 41 percent of employers believe the costs of leaving a position open are higher than hiring a foreign national – which is why the demand for foreign national talent will continue to grow. Fifty-nine percent of employers told us they expect their immigration program to grow in 2018. (Read more about this year’s expectations in our 2018 Immigration Trends Report.)

What do recent numbers have to do with H-1B visa trends?

The increased scrutiny of the H-1B visa, the glaring skills gap and the noticeable decline in interest from foreign nationals may have companies wondering: Is the H-1B visa still the best choice?

The H-1B visa has plenty of qualities that make it the most popular employment-based visa in the U.S. One of those qualities is that it’s a dual intent visa. That means that employees can express their intent to stay in the U.S. on a long-term basis when they’re applying for their work visa. And there is no conflict when a person on an H-1B visa wants to apply for permanent resident status in the U.S.

It’s also traditionally open to a wide variety of skills and occupations, with the highest number of those being in technology-related fields. In April 2017, the USCIS reinterpreted the eligible occupations for the H-1B, specifically changing the requirements for “computer programmer” occupations, which narrowed the criteria for eligible applicants.

Two visas that share the H-1B visa’s dual intent quality are the O-1 visa for workers with extraordinary abilities and the L-1 visa for intracompany transfers. Like with the H-1B visa, foreign nationals on O-1 or L-1 visa status can apply establish their intent to stay in the United States beyond the duration of their visa by applying for their green card in the U.S. while on that visa.

Dual intent visas tend to be attractive to employees who have their sights set on permanent residency in the U.S., and this quality can be a powerful part of the recruiting and onboarding process.

And, there are other U.S. visas that are open to a plethora of occupations, but securing those visas could depend more on the applicant’s country of origin, professional skills or education level. Selecting alternatives to the H-1B visa tends to require a little extra research, but it’s a process worth doing, especially if your candidate isn’t selected as one of the 85,000 cap-subject H-1B visa recipients this year. (We’ve created this guide to help you get started.)

The bottom line is that, despite H-1B trends showing a drop in popularity, the H-1B visa is still a great choice for foreign national employees in many different occupations. However, there are other viable visa options that hiring managers and HR should consider for bringing international talent into the U.S.

Subscribe to our blog to receive in-depth updates on the best alternatives to the H-1B in the coming weeks or read our H-1B Alternatives Guide.

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