Columbia ranks high in visas for foreign workers

Study: City placed in top 100 for recruiting for high-tech jobs in computers, science, engineering

07/18/2012 12:00 AM

07/17/2012 9:42 PM

Columbia businesses last year applied for 351 visas to bring in computer programmers, engineers and other high-skilled workers from other countries.

The metro area placed among the top 100 in the United States in trying to recruit workers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit, public policy organization in Washington D.C. That makes Columbia a “high demand” area for foreign workers, the report said.

And, the Columbia metro area ranked in the top 10 nationally for communities receiving federal job training grants that are tied to the visa applications. That grant money will help train South Carolina workers to fill the jobs that are in high demand.

Brookings analyzed H1B visa requests for 2010-2011 in the nation’s metropolitan areas to study the demand for high-tech workers, said Jill Wilson, a senior research analyst. The H1B visa allows companies to hire foreigners to work in specialty occupations. Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The visas are granted for three years with an option to extend for up to six years.

Brookings analyzed only the number of visa applications because the numbers of visas granted for each metro area were not available, Wilson said.

The United States grants 85,000 H1B visas each year, but academic and research institutions are allowed to apply for an unlimited number of the visas.

The United States needs to stay competitive with other countries when it comes to producing engineers, computer specialists and others who work in science, technology and math, Wilson said.

Already, the United States trails China and other Asian nations in these job training categories. China produces a third of the world’s undergraduate engineering degrees, the report said.

“The United States needs a high-skilled labor force to grow and succeed,” Wilson said.

In Columbia, the University of South Carolina is the largest single applicant for H1B visas. Computer techs and engineers are the most sought-after workers, the report found. That mirrors the national trend.

While Columbia is a high-demand area for foreign workers, it also is taking advantage of federal grants that are tied to fees that the H1B visa applicants pay.

The metro region ranked fifth in per capita distribution of money through the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. It ranked sixth in distribution of National Science Foundation grants for science, technology, engineering and mathematics scholarships, according to Brookings. That money is being used to train South Carolina workers.

The National Science Foundation awarded nearly $1.8 million in scholarship money to South Carolina with most of it going to Columbia College, Wilson said.

Midlands Tech won a $5 million grant through the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. With that, Midlands Tech will train 320 students over the next four years to work in information technology fields, said Catherine Pitts, the college’s director of programs.

“What we learned is there is a mismatch between the skills of the unemployed and the needs of the employers,” she said.

The new program will train people to work in computer programming and in network and server administration. In its research, Midlands Tech found that the insurance technology sector needed the programmers who are versed in various software while the health care industry needs the specialists who deal with the hardware, Pitts said.

“They said, ‘It’s great to have IT professionals who know how to write code but it’s also important they know something about our industry,’” she said. “That’s the goal – to meet the needs of our employers with our home grown folks.”

Greenville also ranked in the top 100 but trailed Columbia in the number of H1B visas that were applied for and in the amount of federal money distributed.

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