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US Employers Filing Job Visa Bids at Fast Pace

Dozens of employer booths are seen at a job fair called the "For The People Jobs Initiative," where job seekers met employers, job counselors, skills trainers and others, at Crenshaw Christian Center in South Los Angeles, August 31, 2011.
U.S. employers are filing requests for a new round of coveted visas for highly skilled foreign workers at a rapid pace, a sign the country's labor market is advancing quickly.

American companies can annually sponsor up to 65,000 foreigners with at least bachelor's degrees to fill key job openings, mostly for a range of technology jobs, as well as another 20,000 with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

The government's Citizenship and Immigration Services agency opened the window Monday for H-1B visas for the year starting in October. But it said that the 65,000 quota could be filled by the end of this week, a pace not seen since 2008, before the start of the worst economic downturn in the U.S. in seven decades.

The senior economist for one of the largest U.S. banks, James Glassman of JPMorgan Chase, said that the U.S. labor market is on a marked upswing.

“The market for people with specialized skills, technology skills, has really opened up dramatically," he said. "We began to see…normally for the past several years you don’t really fill these quotas till about December. And what we noticed was that last year, starting sometime in the summer, the applications really started to accelerate. So the fact that we’re filling the quota this early tells you something important about the job market, about the economy.”

The U.S. economy has been adding about 200,000 jobs a month, among them the high-tech jobs now being filled with workers holding the visas. The foreign workers can initially stay in the U.S. for three years, but their visas can be renewed for another three.

To some degree, Glassman said the slots are open because the American educational system has not produced enough U.S. workers to fill them. But he also said the openings are attractive to skilled foreigners.

“A lot of these folks are getting trained because of needs they have back at home," he added. "But I think it’s very possible that it’s telling you something about the educational system, but I think it’s also telling you that the U.S. economy is really dynamic and resilient, and people will want to go where the job opportunities are.”

He said the available jobs require significant skills.

“These are technology jobs, software development," Glassman said. "You know when you talk to businesses, what they’ll tell you is the nature of job opportunities in manufacturing has changed. It’s much more demanding. We’ve automated so much stuff that what businesses need is people who are skilled in programming and maintaining and designing and developing some of the equipment that they have.”