BANGALORE, India, Sept. 30 - Prasad Tadiparti, global general manager of human resources at MindTree Consulting, is working his way around what he calls "a logistical nightmare."
He is trying to anticipate what skills his clients in the United States may need in the next few years and match them with the profiles of his approximately 1,000 software engineers and others. All this while factoring in how many are willing to travel, how many hold valid visas to work in the United States, and for how long.
The "nightmare" is a sharp drop - to 65,000 from 195,000 - in the number of H-1B visas granted for skilled foreign professionals. The change, effective Wednesday, is making the business environment tougher for Indian software services companies like MindTree.
MindTree, which counts Franklin Templeton and Avis among its clients, will be competing with others in the industry for the tighter number of visas. If the visas are exhausted in the next few months, as some expect, services companies say that their clients' delivery schedules and new projects will be delayed.
H-1B visas are given each year to foreign workers whose specialized skills are sought by American companies. During the technology boom, the H-1B visa program, which allows foreigners to work in the United States for up to six years, provided a gateway for thousands of Indians who came to work in the United States, especially in Silicon Valley.
More recently, the number of visa applications has dropped. Last year, petitions for H-1B visas dropped by 75 percent, to 26,659, according to the American Electronics Association, a trade group that represents technology companies. The lighter use of the visas reflected the downturn in the dot-com sector and the elimination of technology jobs.
But critics now point to another visa, the L-1, that is used to bring in cheaper foreign workers who may be replaced once they are trained. Congress is also looking at the L-1, which has no quotas. The L-1 visa has grown in use, rising nearly 40 percent, to 57,700, last year from 1999, and some say technology employers are switching to this type of visa.
According to an estimate by the American Immigration Lawyers' Association, there are some 900,000 H-1B employees in the United States, 35 percent to 45 percent of them from India.
The H-1B program became an issue as the United States economy softened and employment slumped. Critics of the program argue that American corporations are replacing employees with less-expensive foreign workers from places like India and the Philippines.
Some have even called for scrapping the H-1B visa program altogether, a move seen as part of a reaction against the increasing trend of sending technology and back-office jobs abroad.
Despite this antipathy and public outcry, American companies argue that the program is essential to help maintain competitiveness in the global economy.
In recent Congressional testimony, the chairwoman of the immigration subcommittee of the United States Chamber of Commerce, Elizabeth Dickson of Ingersoll-Rand, said the visa limit delayed the hiring of needed professionals. ''We cannot afford to let arbitrary caps dictate U.S. business immigration policy," Ms. Dickson said.
But with Congress keeping the cap at 65,000, Indian services companies are scrambling to build teams of visa-ready people, said Laxman Badiga, chief staffing officer at India's third-largest software exporter, Wipro. Over 3,000 Wipro employees hold H-1B visas.
As Indian software services companies grapple with the vastly reduced quota of visas, American companies will have to figure out ways to collaborate with them to help manage a supply imbalance that is expected to emerge as the economy improves, said Atul Vashistha, chief executive of neoIT, an outsourcing advisory company based in Santa Clara, Calif. ''We are already advising our clients on how to manage this risk scenario," he said.
For the Indian subsidiaries of multinationals like Intel, however, the impact of the reduced limit is expected to be minimal. "We see this as a bump in the road rather than something which will have a huge impact in the long term," said Ketan Sampat, president of Intel India.
But Mr. Vashistha's firm is urging clients like Cardinal Health and Exult to look at increasing the number of expatriates to help bridge the gap. ''If foreign resources cannot be brought here, then take resources from here to the offshore location," he said.
The reduced visa limit may gradually diminish the United States' ability to attract the most talented workers, industry leaders contend. "With U.S. baby boomers retiring, and the number of tech grads declining, there will be an acute shortage of skilled talent in the coming years," said Kumar Mahadeva, the chief executive of Cognizant Technology Solutions, a software services company based in Teaneck, N.J.
As the economy recovers, industry executives envision an even more acute shortage of skilled workers. "If there are no visas to bring talent to the U.S.," Mr. Badiga of Wipro said, "American companies will eventually say, 'Let's go to India where the resources are.' "
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