The visas are being used by businesses and schools to attract top-tier talent from abroad to match employers' needs.
Demand is hot in the Twin Cities and across the country for workers from overseas with computer, engineering and other science skills, according to a report released Wednesday by the Brookings Institution.
The Twin Cities ranked 16th out of 106 metro areas, as measured by the number of "H-1B visa" requests submitted by local employers from 2010 to 2011.
The H-1B is a temporary work visa issued by the federal government that allows foreign nationals with special knowledge or skills to immigrate legally to the United States for three years at a time. The Brookings report takes a ground-level view of how the much-debated H-1B visa program is playing out in the U.S. economy by studying which cities have the highest demand.
By far, most of the 4,199 requests made by Twin Cities employers went to fill jobs in computer-related fields, the study found. Engineers, health practitioners, financial specialists and business operation specialists rounded out the top jobs filled by overseas talent.
"One of the surprises is that this is a program used very widely across the country," said Jill Wilson, senior research analyst with Brookings and one of the study's authors. And demand from employers continues to exceed the supply of visas available, she said.
Rochester, Minn., stands out as a high user of the H-1B program.
More than 70 percent of requests made for the special visas to bring over skilled immigrants to Rochester came from research or academic institutions -- the largest share of any U.S. metro area, the study found.
Leading the way is the Mayo Clinic, which had the most requests for H-1B workers in Rochester.
Dr. Morie Gertz, chair of Mayo's Department of Medicine, says when it comes to recruiting physicians, it's all about getting the best and the brightest.
"It turns out that these are the people who appear to have the attributes we seek and the intellectual chip speed, if you will, to succeed," he said.
Fifteen years ago, H-1B visa holders working at Mayo who wanted to apply for permanent residency had to go it alone. That's changed as the demand for their skills has grown. "We realized that it was to our advantage to retain these most-talented individuals," Gertz said. Mayo now has an international personnel office that works with H-1B workers the clinic wants to retain to help them obtain permanent status.
Currently, the cap on H-1B visas is set by Congress at 85,000 annually. The application period for fiscal year 2013 began April 1, and the supply of visas ran out by June 11.
Critics of the H-1B visa program say any increase in the number of highly skilled foreign workers allowed into the country goes against the interest of protecting American jobs for U.S. citizens. Those who favor increasing the number of visas issued say it makes sense in a global economy to attract the best talent to work in the United States to help grow the economy and keep America competitive.
Piyumi Samaratunga, an immigration attorney in the Twin Cities, said she's not surprised to learn the Twin Cities ranks in the top 20 nationally for demand for foreign skilled workers.
"I am told by large employer clients that certain skill sets in computer-related occupations are just not available in sufficient numbers in the U.S., either because our schools are not graduating sufficient numbers or because our students don't have certain experiences with certain technologies," said Samaratunga, who helps companies navigate the complicated immigrant visa process.
Aditya Bhan, a native of India, was an H-1B visa holder until 2010, when he obtained permanent status. An assistant professor in chemical engineering and material science at the University of Minnesota, Bhan works to develop new solutions for using raw materials and feedstocks in making plastics, paints, antifreeze and other everyday products. He says he's content living and working in Minnesota. "My family back in India would be very happy if I went back," he said. "But [here] it's a work atmosphere I don't get in other countries."
The study also found more than 80 percent of visa requests submitted by Minnesota employers were to fill jobs in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. Top employers of H-1B visa workers in Minnesota include: Tata Consultancy Services Limited, the University of Minnesota, Wipro Limited, Cummins Inc., and Deloitte Consulting.
A little-known aspect of the H1-B visa program supports science and math education and skills training in the United States by designating fees collected from employers for the visas to pay for the development of homegrown talent. But according to the study, the money is not being channeled to the areas that are registering the most demand for technical workers from overseas.
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488