Obtaining international specialty workers for your organization

Gary S. Downing, P.E.
Engineering Section Supervisor
Sarasota County Public Works
Sarasota, Florida
Member, APWA Diversity Committee

Prior to 2001, Sarasota County had a limited understanding of the requirements, procedures and processes for obtaining employment authorization or H1-B sponsorship for international specialty foreign-born individuals. Since 2001, Sarasota County has developed a strategy to actively and routinely recruit foreign-born employees for full-time employment and internships. This has been useful in keeping the organization competitive, lively and diverse. Sarasota County currently employs individuals from India, Colombia and Ghana, as well as interns and past employees from Pakistan, South Korea, People's Republic of China (Taiwan) and China.

Looking for employees that are competitive, innovative, creative and resourceful has always been a key issue with public works departments. Salaries as reported in the 6th Annual CE News Civil Engineering Salary Survey for 2004 indicate the compensation by years of experience between public and private companies have narrowed (see the attached table courtesy of the May 2004 issue of CE News).

After observing trends where graduates and enrollments declined in most engineering colleges and institutions during 1998-2002, the demand and market for specialized talent became highly competitive. When the need for professional staffing increased, Sarasota County decided to explore the potential recruitment of international specialty foreign-born individuals.

Regrettably, several highly qualified and talented candidates were lost as potential employees and not considered when asked: "Does your firm offer sponsorship for H1-B?" This was a result of being unfamiliar with policies for employment authorization for international specialty workers.

Therefore, it is imperative to know the regulations set by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) division of U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) for H1-B employees. The closer scrutiny from CIS since events of September 11, 2001 and a congressionally mandated visa cap of 65,000 H1-Bs effective FY2004 (October 1-September 30) as compared with 195,000 H1-Bs for FY2003 has started to impact the availability. The three classifications Sarasota County currently staff and support are Curricular Practical Training (CPT), Optional Practical Training (OPT) and H1-B Specialty occupation petition for a nonimmigrant worker (I-129).

Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is available to individuals currently enrolled or pursuing an advanced degree. One of the best places to start is with the International Student Center (ISC) at local educational institutions. They assist in certifying all requirements and processing documentation for employment. While enrolled, the educational institution, not employer, is responsible for the maintenance of conditions for the visa (i.e., student educational visa [F-1]). Graduate and Doctoral candidates who have completed extended studies can work while maintaining student status providing real-world experience and insight. The Employment Authorization Document (EAD) is processed by the institution and must be related to the respected curricula. Sarasota County hires several graduate students and recent graduates for summer internships each year. By interacting with these current students Sarasota County has been kept abreast of new technology and maintains the relationships established with the institutions and ISC. Available length of employment is subject to the terms of each institution and varies based on requirements for maintaining student status actively pursuing a degree. The longest continuous employment for CPT with Sarasota County has been 12 months.

Optional Practical Training (OPT) occurs after graduation and is similar to CPT. This provides the opportunity to work full-time without additional educational constraints for a period of one year without changing the status of the student visa. The processing of the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) is handled by the educational institution and must be received prior to the first day of permanent employment. The responsibility for employment authorization is with the individual and subject to the educational institution, not the employer. During this year the employer can decide to sponsor the employee for the H1-B. If not sponsored then the individual may re-enroll in another degree program, return to the native country or request a change in status of his visa. This year provides time to evaluate and process documentation for potential employment as a petitioner for H1-B status. Obtaining of OPT is a simpler process, does not have a mandated cap, and requires no funding commitment.

H1-B or I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker. As previously mentioned, limited quantities (65,000) are available each fiscal year beginning on October 1. Applications are accepted beginning April 1 and typical processing time can be from 60-180 days. As of October 1, 2004 the mandated cap of 65,000 H1-Bs was reached. Several debates as to whether to raise or lower the cap by domestic firms have been a topic for discussion. In response to this, legislation signed on December 9, 2004, has provided a compromise and change to the program. Effective March 8, 2005 and each fiscal year thereafter, the first 20,000 applicants who earn a master's degree or higher from U.S. institutions of higher education are not subject to the annual congressionally mandated H1-B visa cap. This now adjusts the total annual amount of H1-B petitions for non-immigrant workers to 85,000.

The approved petition for the worker (H1-B) is valid for an initial period of three years, then renewable for an additional three years. This allows the employee and organization to maintain the H1-B status for a total of six years. The renewal of an H1-B is not included as part of the annual cap. After this period, the individual may seek to obtain a new Permanent Resident Card, Form I-551 "Green Card" valid for ten (10) years. Several myths regarding the H1-B workers are without merit as shown in the table at the top right.

Consider the following case study. A foreign-born student has approval of the educational institution to pursue graduate studies in a specialized area such as GIS, transportation, asphalt research or water resources. Many times as research assistants they are teaching and working with new concepts keeping current of other developments. While enrolled, inquiries from professors regarding real-life situations are desired for dissertations or theses and may be available to the organization or agency. In this case there is an opportunity to work under CPT that offers potential solutions to problems benefiting the organization, individual and educational institution.

After graduation, the individual transitions to OPT. Depending on the length of time spent, the individual will become comfortable with policies and procedures as well as acclimated to the organization. This provides for an accelerated learning curve and quicker return of investments made by the organization while the individual working was employed under CPT. The employee is now free of the educational requirements and constraints, eligible to work full-time and will seek sponsorship as H1-B. This status is limited to one year after graduation.

The organization will then pursue sponsorship for the individual prior to expiration of OPT. There is a cost associated with this sponsorship. The modest cost of a current petition for H1-B is $2,185.00 for the first three years and $1,685.00 for the next three years. If allowing for the possible employment under CPT, OPT and H1-B, the employee can be working and contributing to the organization for up to seven years. After which a Permanent Resident Card, Form I-551 "green card" could be obtained at the cost of the individual.

This method to obtain authorization to work in the United States under Curricular Practical Training (CPT), Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Authorization for a Nonimmigrant (H1-B) has produced positive results for our organization.

For additional information pertinent to this subject, the APWA Diversity Committee will sponsor a presentation during the International Public Works Congress & Exposition, September 11-14, 2005 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Gary Downing can be reached at (941) 861-0878 or at gdowning@scgov.net.