Monday, February 4, 2013

The Top 5 Skills American Companies are Looking to Import

In the first days of President Obama's second term, immigration has taken center stage in the political arena. The Republican "Gang of 8" senators, led by Orrin Hatch of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida, and John McCain of Arizona, introduced the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 on January 29. For his part, President Obama posted his own framework for immigration reform on the same day. Both pleas for reform have strong political undertones; Republicans hope to erase the 44% Democratic advantage that Obama enjoyed among Hispanics in the 2012 election, while the president and his party hope to solidify their advantage with these voters.

Yet the issue of immigration reform is far more than a political scuffle. Throughout American history, immigrants have brought passion, intelligence, and creativity to the country's workforce. Since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, skilled foreign workers have come to the United States on H-1B visas. Under the law's current provisions, American employers compete for 65,000 visa slots, with an additional 20,000 slots for foreigners with advanced degrees.

Which skills do American employers demand the most in foreign workers? The answers come in a report by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security.

1: Computer programming

By a wide margin, occupations in systems analysis and computer programming are the single largest driver of the H-1B visa program. In fact, in fiscal year 2011 these occupations were awarded 43.8% of the total H-1Bs. That year, computer programmers and systems analysts received 116,236 H-1B visas, up from 78,440 in 2010. In addition, non-programming computer professionals were awarded 13,901 visas. Not surprisingly, according to a July 2012 report by the Brookings Institution, the company that requested the most H-1B workers was Microsoft, with 4,109 requests.

2: Higher Education

H-1B legislation includes a special, uncapped category for non-profit groups. Thanks largely to these groups, foreign professionals in higher education occupations received 17,859 visas during fiscal year 2011.

3: Electrical/Electronics and Mechanical Engineering

Of all the occupations eligible for H-1B visas, engineers may represent the clearest case of the United States being out-competed by the rest of the world. According to the Brookings report, 56% of the world's undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded in Asia, with a third of the world's total earned in China alone. In 2011, electrical/electronics engineers account for 11,400 H-1B visas, and mechanical engineers make up an additional 5,070.

4: Accounting and auditing

After Microsoft, the top 2 H-1B requesting corporations are in the financial industry: Deloitte, one of the "Big 4" professional services firms, and Tata Consultancy Services, an arm of the India-based Tata Group that offers business and technology solutions. In fiscal year 2011, accounting and auditing occupations accounted for 8,750 H-1B visas.

5: Medicine

Physicians and surgeons round out the top 5 list H-1B recipients, with 8,649 in 2011. Therapists account for an additional 2,783 visas, while 3,654 were awarded to other medical and health professionals.

Should immigration law be reformed so that more of these foreign professionals can enter the United States? The short answer is yes. Last year, US companies were so eager to hire that the year-long cap was filled in just two and a half months. In fact, The New Republic reports that 22,000 H-1B applications were filled in just four and a half days. The speed with which H-1B slots are filled reflects the overall strength of the US economy- the more success American firms enjoy, the more spots they'll have to fill. Nor are foreign workers hired just to avoid paying higher wages to Americans: the current law stipulates that H-1B recipients must be paid at least the local "prevailing wage".

The Republican proposal in particular emphasizes the need for H-1B caps to be relaxed. The Immigration Innovation Act advocates raising the occupational cap from 65,000 to 115,000, and eliminating the advanced-degree cap altogether. It also calls for a market-based "escalator" that would allow the cap to increase or decrease according to demand. The president's proposal calls for a special class of H-1B visas for foreign entrepreneurs eager to come to the US, and echoes Mitt Romney's proposal to "staple green cards" to the diplomas of advanced graduates in science, math, and engineering fields. In the coming weeks and months, we'll see if the federal government has the political capital and foresight necessary to achieve reform on immigration.

This is a guest post from Nick Gidwani, founder of – the Internet’s leading source of information on online courses, with over 60,000 courses from over 200 providers available in every subject. Nick previously worked at Bain Capital and WebMD, and graduated from MIT. Find online courses at, and visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

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