A shortage of H-1B visas is preventing U.S. companies from hiring the foreign technical employees they need to fill their talent gap. Some firms are getting around the problem by seeking alternatives to basing employees stateside in the first place—and, in the process, are reaping other benefits.
A shortage of visas for foreign professionals has created an atmosphere of crisis for large tech-based companies in the United States. But some companies have found ways around the problem and in the process reaped other important benefits, ranging from happier employees to improved corporate structure.
With the number of U.S. jobs in science, engineering, and computers growing rapidly and the domestic supply of qualified workers failing to keep pace, the demand for H-1B visas allowing foreign professionals into the country has soared. For the past five years, the congressionally mandated annual cap on the visas has been quickly met, closing out many individuals. Five business days after applications for 2008 were opened, some 163,000 people had applied for the 85,000 H-1B visas available, about 20,000 more applicants than for all of the previous year. Bill Gates told a congressional panel earlier this year that the U.S. “will find it far more difficult to maintain its competitive edge over the next 50 years if it excludes those who are able and willing to help us compete.”
Multinationals, desperate to fill technical positions, have been seeking alternatives to the use of H-1Bs. A solution that’s growing in popularity is intracompany transfer visas, which allow a firm to bring an unlimited number of foreign employees into the United States. But employees are eligible only after they have worked for the company for a year. So a multinational might, for example, assign a new hire to spend 12 months working in a country with looser immigration rules before bringing him or her to the United States.
The biggest companies have gone a step further by seeking alternatives to basing tech workers in the United States at all. They have found numerous advantages to creating teams of professionals who are based outside the United States and can easily be sent to countries where they’re needed—for example, for local rollouts of high-tech products. In a trend that has gained momentum in the past 18 months or so, companies have been creating sophisticated “global mobility” programs aimed at creating truly international career paths for professionals. Having learned that hastily planned transfers often leave employees and their families feeling out of place culturally, these companies now carefully screen employees before any transfers, monitor their satisfaction and performance during foreign assignments, and debrief them afterward about what did and didn’t go well.
The programs appear to be paying off: My firm’s clients tell us that employees seem more satisfied with the experience, and the company benefits from workers’ broader language and people skills and their greater knowledge of the company’s operations.
For the many large companies that haven’t yet developed global mobility programs, here are two points in favor of doing so:
They help recruitment and retention. Employees have come to see international mobility as a new way to distinguish themselves and as a positive career move, companies report.
Their start-up costs are not as high as one might think. Many executives assume that a mobility program requires the firm’s full incorporation in foreign countries. Not so. A low-cost branch office may be all that’s needed. And it’s often more cost-effective to send a team of trained professionals into a new country for a short-term project than to train local employees, companies have discovered. There is a strategic benefit too: a faster, more flexible structure. When they are organized around projects, as opposed to locations, companies can enter new segments more quickly, reduce time to market, and enhance process standardization.