GAO: Visa fees boost IT industry

High Skill Training: Grants from H-1B Visa Fees Meet Specific Workforce Needs, but at Varying Skill Levels

The information technology industry is benefiting from federal grant programs that use H-1B visa fees to train and prepare workers for highly skilled jobs, according to a General Accounting Office report released Oct. 22.

H-1B visas allow U.S. companies, including federal contractors, to hire skilled foreign workers on a temporary basis mainly in the IT and scientific fields. Employers who want to hire these workers must pay the $1,000 visa application fee.

Most of the application processing revenue is spent on training programs to improve the skills of U.S. workers: The Labor Department receives 55 percent of the funds to improve skills of workers in hard-to-fill occupations, and the National Science Foundation receives 22 percent to distribute as scholarship grants for low-income students.

Most of the skill-building programs funded in the first three rounds of grants distributed in 2000 provided training for IT occupations, according to GAO. Of the 43 grantees selected in the first three rounds of grants, 35 provided training in IT and 19 of them trained exclusively in IT, GAO said.

Students receiving scholarship grants, meanwhile, are training for positions that are typically filled by H-1B visa holders. According to Immigration and Naturalization Service data, 58 percent of H-1B visa workers were approved to work in computer-related positions in fiscal 2001, GAO said. As a result, 38 percent of the scholarship recipients are majoring in computer science, and 37 percent are majoring in engineering.

While GAO found that the programs do a good job of responding to workforce shortages in local or national markets particularly in IT and health care, there is still room for improvement.

GAO recommended, for instance, that Labor institute new reporting requirements so that more detailed information is available about participants and the level of training provided, and that better processes be put in place to make sharing information related to the programs easier. GAO recommended that NSF make it easier for schools that receive scholarship grants to share successful strategies.

Labor and NSF generally agreed with the report. In its comments, Labor suggested that its new reporting requirements should provide the necessary additional details to help it evaluate the impact of its skill grant program.

The GAO report was done at the request of Reps. Jim Barcia (D-Mich.) and Lynn Rivers (D-Mich.), senior members of the House Science Committee.

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