This piece is published as part of our Immigration Idea Incubator series, which features policy ideas our team has been thinking about in addition to our formal immigration strategy work. We welcome your thoughts and engagement!
The H-1B visa, a temporary employment visa for specialized workers, primarily aims to facilitate employers’ access to highly skilled workers from abroad. Also embedded in the program’s design is a woefully overlooked benefit for the domestic workforce: funding to upskill, reskill, and develop the American labor force. This benefit should be acknowledged and replicated.
Our failure to build a robust domestic workforce with critical skills has led to a dependency on the immigration system. The H-1B fees and the programs they fund are an attempt to mitigate that dependency.
Immigrants are, of course, a highly productive and essential part of the American labor market, with their skills often filling employment gaps caused by a relative dearth of domestic talent.
In some critical graduate programs, only 20 percent of program graduates have a lifetime right to work in the U.S., with the remaining 80 percent relying on visa sponsorship. This is where the H-1B petition fees come in.
At the time of application, an employer seeking to hire an H-1B worker pays a supplemental fee called the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act fee, which includes a designated contribution to the H-1B Skills Training Grants. These grants fund a variety of Department of Labor-managed programs that are offered to Americans to prepare them for high-skilled jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign labor.
Programs funded by the H-1B fees are designed to be responsive to the American labor market’s needs and target industries and occupations with the most significant demand.
For example, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department of Labor (DOL) dedicated $40 million of H-1B training grant funds to initiatives that would increase the availability of qualified healthcare workers in rural America.
In the same year, DOL allocated $145 million to programs that could train Americans for careers in information technology, advanced manufacturing, and transportation–industries among the top occupational categories currently dependent on specialized foreign labor.
Recent funding has also been directed at nursing and apprenticeship programs across the country and to technical training initiatives designed to meet the labor demands of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Together, these programs benefit Americans without relying on taxpayer dollars. Rather, they directly result from American employers seeking skilled labor they cannot find domestically.
In addition to drawing funds from H-1B petitions, similar allocations could be attached to all employment-based immigration applications and petitions, increasing the contributions to these programs dramatically. The additional funds could be utilized to expand the number of Americans benefiting from the programs and the types of training offered. Contributions could be linked to scholarship funds that may finance the targeted education needs of our economic growth and national security.
Given the disparate rates of births and deaths in the United States, our reliance on foreign labor is likely to persist. However, if every visa application resulting from an employer’s failed search for qualified domestic labor could trigger an investment into reskilling the available American workforce, we could at least narrow that gap.