New York leads in H-1B demand

The New York metropolitan area has the highest demand for H-1B workers in the U.S., according to a new study that examines regional use of the work visa.

That's followed by Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and Washington metropolitan areas, according to a Brookings Institution study that maps H-1B visa usage around the country.

The study's broader mission is to explain how H-1B workers are used, where they are used, and what companies use them in 106 metropolitan areas.

Take the Columbus, Ind., metro area, for instance. That area had 629 H-1B visa requests in 2010 and 2011. The top visa employer in Columbus is Cummins Inc., an engine manufacturing company.

As part of the study, Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at Brookings and co-author of the report, interviewed officials at Cummings and said the firm is in need of skilled workers to help it develop clean technologies for engines. "They are really struggling to fill a lot of their positions," said Ruiz.

The report argues that some metro areas are using temporary workers "to address what they see as a lack of high-skilled labor in the local marketplace."

In Rochester, Minn., for instance, the largest user of H-1B workers is the Mayo Clinic, where the unemployment rate was 1.5% among those with bachelor's degrees and above in 2010, according to the report.

"[Policy makers] need to take into consideration what's going on at the local level," Ruiz said.

One reason for taking into account local use of H-1B visas is to help determine the distribution of skills training money, said Ruiz.

The U.S. uses some of the money it collects from H-1B fees and reallocates it for skills retaining. "The money has not been proportionately distributed to high H-1B demand areas," he said.

Kansas, for instance, received $5 million last year from the U.S. under its H-1B Technical Skills Training Grant program. According to this study, the Wichita, Kansas metro area ranks low on the report's list of H-1B visa requests, but is now a leader in receiving retraining money.

That money is being used to pay the tuition of 100 students who are studying science, technology, engineering and math at a bachelor, master's degree or Ph.D. level training.

The program's operation is seemingly simple. "The university sends us the invoice for the tuition and we pay it," said Keith Lawing, executive director of the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas, which is administering the program. The group also helps students with child care and will work with students to find internships.

The grant is targeted at training people for positions that are being filled with H-1B workers, which includes aerospace, bioengineering, computer, electrical, engineering and other technical occupations, said Lawing.

The Brookings report recommends creating a national commission to advise Congress on changes that are needed in skills immigration program.

The Brookings study won't quell the debate over the use of the H-1B visas, about half of which go to people in computer occupations.

The report, for instance, doesn't weigh in over the use of the visa by companies whose primary mission is to move jobs offshore. It doesn't look at wages and what role they play in the geographic distribution.

The study authors acknowledge the debate over the visa use, and say the report's intent is to provide "a new way of looking at the high-skilled immigration issue by examining the demand for H-1B visas in U.S. regional economies."

"This demand is not necessarily evidence of a high-skilled labor shortage in the native labor force, it may reflect employers' preference to hire foreign workers, or it could be in response to skills shortages," the authors said.

The report, in assembling its charts showing regional use, relies on the Labor Condition Application (LCAs) reports that employers must file with the Labor Dept. as part of an H-1B approval process. The LCA data include geographies.

The H-1B demand for 2010-2011 Metro areas broke down this way:

New York-Northern New Jersey: 52,921, 16.3% share.

Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana: 18,048, 5.5% share.

San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont: 16,333, 5% share.

San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara: 14,926, 4.6% share.

Washington-Arlington-Alexandria: 14,569, 4.5% share.

Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, IL: 14,011, 4.3% share.

Boston-Cambridge-Quincy: 11,541, 3.5% share.

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