U.S. IT employment dips, H-1B visa demand sluggish

Demand for IT workers retreated a little in March despite the addition of 162,000 jobs to the U.S. workforce overall, in what the White House had said was the “most positive jobs report in three years.”

TechServe Alliance, an IT industry group that analyzes U.S. government employment data, said the number of people employed in IT stands at 3.83 million, after a decline of .05%, or 1,800 jobs, in March.

This slight decline last month follows an addition of 18,000 IT jobs in the first two months of this year.

Mark Roberts, CEO of TechServe, said month-to-month hiring variances are to be expected. “I believe we will continue to see a general upward trend in the coming months,” he said, despite crediting some of the overall gain in employment by an U.S. Census hiring and temporary hiring.

The IT job market still has a long way to go before it reaches its employment peak in 2008 of about 4 million.

Another indicator of IT employment demand may be in the initial demand the H-1B visa, which is sluggish compared with earlier years.

Critics of the H-1B visa see it primarily as a tool to outsource IT jobs overseas and to displace U.S. workers with younger and lower paid visa workers. Proponents argue that H-1B visas are their main tool for hiring students out of U.S. universities.

The Indian offshoring firms see the visa as a trade issue. But regardless of the reasons behind any visa petition, initial demand for H-1Bs has typically followed the economy.

The U.S. began accepting H-1B visas for the 2011 fiscal year on April 1. As of April 8, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service had received 19,100 visa petitions for 85,000 available visas. This includes 13,500 petitions for the general H-1B cap, and 5,600 visa petitions for advanced degree graduates of U.S. universities.

This initial demand for the 2011 fiscal year visa is well below last year, when the U.S. had received 52,000 H-1B petitions in the first week, including for those visas set aside for advance degree graduates.

Other factors outside of the economy may be at work in shaping H-1B visa demand. The U.S. has been toughening is visa enforcement after a Immigration agency study found evidence of fraud and other violations in about 20% of the visa petitions sampled.

Companies are now being asked to produce far more evidence in support of a petition. Although H-1B petition applications are not flying off the shelves, the H-1B cap is still likely to be reached, it will just take longer.

The H-1B cap for the 2010 fiscal year was reached last December.

Based on the last year s demand for the visa, Eleanor Pelta, first vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that employers this year are feeling a little more comfortable in not rushing their visa petition and are giving themselves more time.

Employers are also taking advantage of the Optional Practical Training extension approved in the final year of the Bush administration, which allows students to work on a student visa from one year to 29 months, she said.

Another reason for the slower demand, said Pelta, may be due to a memo issued by the Immigration Service early this year that requires H-1B visa employers to control the work of an employee at a customer site. Employers may be worried about getting a visa worker who is unable to continue working at a customer site because of the rule.

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