S.D. employers use immigrant sponsorships to fill workplace gaps

This piece is sponsored by Woods, Fuller, Shultz & Smith PC

By Amanda Bahena, immigration attorney

Sioux Falls boasted the lowest metro area unemployment rate in the country (2.1 percent) as of August 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is great news for South Dakota employees, but can pose recruiting challenges for employers.  There are simply not enough workers to fill certain positions.

South Dakota employers increasingly rely on immigration programs to recruit and retain talented employees to fill the gaps.  While a graphic designer, physician or skilled laborer from Chicago or New York might not be open to relocating to South Dakota, an equally talented candidate in Australia, South Africa, Nepal or Chile might jump at the opportunity.

Given the aging workforce in an expanding economy, the immigration recruitment trend is expected to grow. The Pew Research Center recently projected that without future immigrants, the working age population in the U.S. will decrease by 2035.  All signs point to immigrants as a key recruitment strategy for future growth.

Immigration recruitment strategies differ based on the type of position. Here are three options for adding immigration tools to your recruitment toolbox.

Bachelor Degree Candidates or Higher (“Specialty Occupations”)

Employers recruiting for positions requiring bachelor degrees and higher, known as “specialty occupations”, may have several immigration programs available.  The best known program for specialty occupations is the H-1B program.  Employees can typically work in H-1B status for the petitioning employer for up to six years.  During that time, the employer and employee often explore options for longer term employment, which usually involves the employer petitioning the employee for lawful permanent residency (a green card).

Demand for H-1Bs has exceeded the annual cap of 85,000 H-1B visas in recent years.  Most H-1B applicants are run through a random “H-1B lottery”, the first week of April.  This year, approximately 199,000 H-1B applications were received for the available 85,000 H-1B visas.  Some employers, such as colleges and universities and certain non-profit hospitals and research organizations, are statutorily exempt from the H-1B cap.  Cap exempt employers can apply for an H-1B at any time, and do not pass through the lottery.  H-1B cap exemption is a valuable recruitment tool for these employers.

There are more streamlined, lottery-free visas available through treaties with Canada, Mexico, Australia, Singapore and Chile.  These visas (given in two or three year increments) are also for specialty occupations, cost less than the H-1B process, and are not subject to lotteries.  Some employers recruit employees directly from these countries to take advantage of these streamlined visa programs.

Employers can also sponsor employees for lawful permanent residency (a green card) if the employer can show a lack of U.S. workers for the position.  Permanent residency allows the employee to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely.  Employers can petition individuals living in the U.S. in a lawful, temporary status or candidates who live outside of the U.S.  The “green card” process can take 18 to 30 months.

International student offices are a great place to recruit for specialty occupations.  Many international students can work for U.S. employers under optional practical training (OPT).  Employer costs and paperwork for OPT are minimal.  Most students, including those at community colleges and technical schools, can work 12 months on OPT. There is currently a 24 month extension for students in STEM fields.  OPT allows employers to assess an immigrant employee before deciding whether to sponsor the employee for a longer term program.

Worker with Less than a Bachelor’s Degree

Immigration options for non-seasonal positions requiring less than a bachelor degree are somewhat limited.  Employers can sponsor almost any candidate for lawful permanent residence (a green card), provided the employer can show a lack of U.S. workers for the position. Clients have used the green card program to petition nannies, farm supervisors, heavy equipment operators, hotel night managers, caterers, skilled welders and other hard-to-fill positions.

Seasonal Workers (H-2A and H-2B Programs)

There are two popular programs to petition seasonal or other temporary labor, both seeing growth in South Dakota.  Seasonal workers can be employed up to 9 months at a time, and can return annually.  Temporary need workers can work for up to three years. The employer must show a lack of U.S. workers for these positions.

The H-2A program is for temporary or seasonal agricultural labor, such as planting, harvesting, and transporting grain. The H-2B program is for seasonal or other temporary non-agricultural labor.  This program is very popular in construction and tourism industries, but can work for any industry with seasonal or temporary needs, such as education, retail, entertainment, sports or manufacturing.

Finally, as an immigration attorney, I have the pleasure of meeting newly-arrived refugees.  Many refugees are skilled workers, eager to begin a new life and new employment.  Employers do not need to “sponsor” these employees, and can advertise to this pool through Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota (www.lsssd.org).

To learn more about immigration options for South Dakota employers, contact Amanda J. Bahena, an immigration attorney with Woods, Fuller, Shultz and Smith PC, at Amanda.Bahena@WoodsFuller.com.

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S.D. employers use immigrant sponsorships to fill workplace gaps

South Dakota employers increasingly rely on immigration programs to recruit and retain talented employees to fill the gaps.

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