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Friday, 4 January, 2002, 23:32 GMT
Tech jobs go unfilled in US
Tech workers in India
During the US tech boom, foreign workers flooded in
David Schepp

What a difference a year makes.

It is by now a hackneyed phrase. But for those in search of a job in technology, the last twelve months have meant the difference between naming your own meal ticket and begging for a bite.

IT Job/Visa Facts
1952: H-1B non-immigrant visa programme created
1990: Congress passes 65,000 person annual cap on visas
1997: 65,000 cap reached for first time
1998: 65,000 cap reached in May
1999: New 115,000 cap reached in June
2000: 115,000 cap reached in March
2000: Congress raises cap to 195,000
2001: Just 163,000 H1-B visas issued
The wild expansion in the tech industry - especially in California's Silicon Valley - meant many jobs went unfilled by American workers.

In turn, employers turned to recruiting eager men and women from parts of the world with highly educated work forces, such as India and other south-eastern Asia nations, wanting jobs in information technology (IT), such as computer programming.

Souring economy

Now, with the US economy heading south and unemployment rising, foreign workers, hoping to find dream jobs, are anxious about their future, as witnessed by a recent message from a BBC reader.

Information Technology Association's Jeffrey Lande
Lande: "Companies are going to be needing more workers."
"How have the number of IT work permits/visas fared through the US recession?" wrote Rahul Prabhune from India in an e-mail to BBC News.

The answer? There is still strong demand in certain sectors in the US technology sector, according to Jeffrey Lande, IT services vice president at the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), a high-tech trade group.

"You have certain areas that are strong and you also have certain areas in the tech industry where there's still significant shortages of available workers with the necessary skills," he says.

Tech bubble

Just as in the previous tech boom, American workers cannot fill all the available positions. "For those areas," Mr Lande says, "US industry has to look offshore."

That is not to say the bubble and tech tumble has not taken its toll on the fortunes of IT job seekers.

Demand has dropped off... because a lot of the major companies have put a freeze on hiring...

Jeffrey Lande, vice president, ITAA
For example, the telecommunications sector saw a loss of over 317,000 jobs in 2001, according to John Challenger at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a placement firm.

"Telecom was the real victim of the bubble," he says, adding the sheer immensity of the sector nearly ensured huge job losses amid a downturn.

Nevertheless, Mr Challenger also has spied strengthening within the technology sector and computer chips in particular.

Waning recession

There have been positive signs lately, showing a bottoming in the economy, he says, cautioning that further cuts during the last three months of the year have left thousands more without jobs.

"I'm not ready to say we're out of the woods yet," Mr Challenger says.

Other sectors showing strength include e-commerce and web development as well as increased demand in internet security, says ITAA's Lande.

Indian tech workers
Many Indians seek high-tech jobs in the US
Of course, workers who chose to come to the US to work have to deal with US immigration law.

Changes in laws

In order for qualified workers to work in the US, they must first acquire a H-1B visa, which permits foreigners to work in the US temporarily.

Recent changes in the law have meant a larger number of IT workers could immigrate to the US - now capped at 195,000.

But the recent economic downturn has meant for the first time in recent history the cap has not been met. In 2001, just 163,000 IT workers were granted H-1B visas.

"Demand has dropped off to some extent because a lot of the major companies have put a freeze on hiring, temporarily, or they've had to shrink somewhat," says Mr Lande.

Even though companies have had to let go of workers, they have done so discreetly, he says, adding that there are plenty of unfilled jobs in high-tech cities such as Washington, New York, Chicago and Austin, Texas.

Mr Lande says anyone who is able to should get more training while the downturn is still here because the economy - and by extension the tech industry - is going to rebound.

That time is not far off, he says, and those who are ready will once again be able to name their price.

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