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Originally published July 17, 2012 at 9:41 PM | Page modified July 19, 2012 at 7:53 AM

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Seattle ranks high in skilled foreign workers on H-1B visas

The region gets little of the training money generated by H-1B visa fees to upgrade local workers' skills, according to a new study.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Top occupations for H-1B visas in Seattle area

Computer occupations: 6,519

Other management jobs: 734

Engineers: 462

Doctors/health specialists: 271

Financial specialists: 208

Source: Brookings Institution

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Seattle is among the top cities where companies bring in skilled foreign workers under the H-1B visa program, thanks largely to technology powerhouses such as Microsoft and Amazon.com.

But the area doesn't receive anywhere near its share of the money generated by H-1B visa fees, which are supposed to be used to train the local workforce to perform similar jobs, according to a new study.

Seattle ranked ninth in H-1B visa requests per 1,000 workers over the past two years, but it ranked 64th per capita in grant dollars received since 2001 from the Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration, according to the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Companies pay fees ranging from $1,500 to $5,500 to apply for H-1B visas for foreigners with bachelor's degrees in a specialty field. The fees are supposed to fund training programs nationwide to increase the supply of U.S. workers in jobs being filled by foreigners.

The Brookings study found a mismatch between regions with the heaviest demand for H-1B workers and regions that receive the most training grants funded by the visa fees.

Of 106 metro areas with a high demand for H-1Bs — at least 250 H-1B visa requests a year — 36 have received no training funds since 2001, the study found.

The Seattle metro area received $2 million over the 10-year period.

"They really ranked low," said Neil Ruiz, the report's lead author.

Instead, metro areas with fewer H-1B visa requests have received more training funds on a per-capita basis: places such as Gainesville, Fla.; Portland, Maine; and Wichita, Kan., according to Brookings.

Federal law doesn't require the Labor Department to take regional H-1B demand into account in doling out the training grants, for which metro areas must apply and compete.

The study is the first to examine the H-1B program at the metropolitan-area level, Ruiz said.

The program, which began in 1990, has become a critical talent pipeline for U.S. employers, as well as foreign companies with U.S. operations.

Congress capped the number of H-1B visas issued annually at 65,000, with an additional 20,000 visas for workers with graduate degrees from U.S. universities. Visas are granted for three years but can be extended to a total six years.

Employers in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area filed an average of 9,633 H-1B visa requests annually, ranking the region 10th nationally in total applications.

Computer occupations — specifically programmers and software engineers — dominated visa requests both locally and nationally. Nearly 80 percent of requests were for workers in occupations that require a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, known within the industry as "STEM" occupations.

Microsoft led all employers nationally in the average number of H-1B visa requests over the past two years, according to the Brookings report. Amazon, the University of Washington, T-Mobile and Expedia also were heavy H-1B users locally.

But it's not just tech companies: Big-name aerospace, financial, health-care and retail companies also filed requests for H-1B workers.

In contrast to Seattle, Portland, Ore., which ranked 48th in per-capita visa demand, received $15.5 million in grants over the decade, ranking it ninth nationally, according to the study.

Nationwide, about $1 billion from H-1B visa fees has been distributed by the Labor Department since 2001 to build up the skills of the U.S. workforce.

The Seattle-King County Workforce Development Council, the local agency responsible for applying for the job-training grants targeted at employer needs, said it has received more than $20 million in federal grants for worker training over the past three years — but most of that comes from other programs, not the H-1B training grants.

"We aggressively pursue them," said Marlena Sessions, CEO of the council since 2009.

In the past 13 months, she said, the council applied for three grants funded by H-1B visa fees but received none. The grants would have paid for training unemployed and employed workers for jobs in advanced manufacturing, information technology and health care.

"It is a mystery as to why we did not receive them," Sessions said. "We felt like we'd written very competitive proposals."

According to Brookings, the Seattle area received two H-1B-related grants over the past decade: The Workforce Development Council received a $1 million grant in 2009 to help older workers with disabilities, ex-offenders and limited English skills train for high-demand jobs in health-care and technology. And $975,000 was awarded to a program run by enterpriseSeattle to increase the supply of workers in interactive media.

Gary Kamimura, a grants administrator at the state Employment Security Department, said applications for the federal H-1B training grants can be difficult to pull together in a short time frame.

"Unless you really have a consortium or partnership that's been thinking about this already," he said, "it's not impossible but it can be challenging."

The grants funded by H-1B visa fees aren't the only source for training programs. Since fall 2010, more than 12,000 Washington residents have taken free Microsoft online courses available through the state's local WorkSource centers, according to Employment Security.

Critics have blamed the H-1B program for making it easier for Microsoft and other companies to hire foreign workers at U.S. workers' expense. Companies don't have to prove there aren't U.S. workers available to fill these jobs.

India had the highest number of H-1B recipients in 2011, accounting for 58 percent of all approved requests, followed by China at 8.8 percent and Canada at 3.5 percent, according to the Brookings study.

These workers aren't a big presence even at most employers that hire them. Almost half of employers requested only one H-1B worker, and 94 percent requested fewer than 10 workers, according to the Brookings report.

The 100 employers with the highest number of requests — led by Microsoft, with an average of 4,109 requests a year — represented one-fifth of the requests nationwide.

Employers who file requests for H-1B workers must pay at least the prevailing wage for the occupation. The wages often are higher than the average local wage because of the specialized skills required.

The average starting salary for H-1B computer-software engineers last year was about $92,000, based on a Seattle Times analysis of visa requests by Washington-based employers.

Microsoft has more than 5,100 open jobs in the United States alone, said Bill Kamela, the company's senior director of education and workforce, and about 60 percent of those are in hard-to-fill computer-science or engineering disciplines.

Employers such as Microsoft often argue the U.S. isn't producing enough potential employees in these technical fields.

In the United States last year, more than half of the 1,600 computer-science doctoral students were foreigners, Kamela said, leaving 700 U.S.-born doctorates.

The Brookings study notes that Asia produces more than half of the world's engineering bachelor's degrees, Europe 17 percent and the United States 4 percent.

"We need to make STEM undergraduate and graduate degrees more enticing to young people," Kamela said.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103

or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

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