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US state of Hawaii facing tech worker shortage

As the US state of Hawaii broadens its reach into high-technology industries, employers are finding the federal limits on immigration restricting their ability to hire computer engineers and other technical workers from overseas.

With few technical experts available locally, Hawaii is now running into the same problems experienced in recent years by companies in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston and other technology hotbeds. With few Americans available to do the work, companies are turning to applicants from other countries.

Before 2000, U.S. employers were allowed to hire 195,000 foreign nationals a year. That number has since been cut to 65,000.

The policy change is seen as a threat to foreign student enrollment at schools such as Hawaii Pacific University and employers who say they can't find enough skilled people such as computer science engineers in Hawaii.

"It's a major issue," said Mike Fitzgerald, president and CEO of Enterprise Honolulu.

"We're seeing a shortage of talent in the science technology and engineering realm. We have about 1,500 companies in the innovation category, and about two-thirds of them have technology positions they aren't able to find people to fill. It hurts our economic competitiveness if we don't let more smart people in here from wherever they want to come."

KahBo Dye-Chiew, president of the Hawaii Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she represents several high-tech employers who also are struggling to find the right people for openings.

"They cannot find U.S. workers who are able to do the job," Dye-Chiew said. "They are seeing the need to hire foreign workers."

On the other side are those who believe companies want to hire foreign experts because they're willing to work more cheaply than American workers. But Dye-Chiew and others say restrictive U.S. immigration laws prevent employers from casually hiring foreign nationals for white-collar jobs.

For one thing, the employer must show there is a definite talent shortage. Plus, the process can be a big expense for employers. The filing fee alone is $1,500. Employers also must pay a $1,500 training fee and a $500 fraud prevention fee. Most usually hire an immigration lawyer to oversee the paperwork.

"Employers are not going to go through all that trouble unless there is justification for it," said Ruth K. Oh, an immigration lawyer in Honolulu.

Michael T. Rota, associate vice president of academic affairs for the University of Hawaii community colleges, said the fact remains that Hawaii high schools are graduating between 14,000 and 15,000 students a year for a job market that requires about 30,000 people a year.

"Then, only 35 percent of them go on to higher education, cutting that 15,000 to less than half," Rota said. "So, right off the bat, we've got a major deficit. The government's visa program has been an attempt to respond to that issue."

Under the federal government's H-1B temporary worker visa program, Hawaii employers are allowed to hire foreign nationals with knowledge and skills figured to be in short supply. The visas are valid for up to six years. Demand for those visas have been steadily rising in Hawaii.

Employers hired 315 foreign nationals in the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2002. By a comparable period in 2004, that had grown to 546, about a 73 percent climb in two years.

But in fiscal year 2005, the number of foreign nationals hired for white-collar jobs in Hawaii fell 2.4 percent to 533, according to the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services in Washington, D.C.

"The problem is that the cap on visas was cut in half," said Maile Hirota, an immigration lawyer in Honolulu. "And in the long run, this might discourage foreign students from coming to the U.S. or Hawaii if they know they can't get hired after they graduate."

Already, Hawaii Pacific University has seen a 5 percent drop this year in its foreign student enrollment. Fall enrollment dropped to 1,356 foreign students this year, down from 1,429 last year, said Scott Stensrud, vice president for enrollment management.

Nationally, the effect of immigration policy is showing up in the reduced number of foreign students studying computer science at American universities.

But some local observers point to statistics that suggest Hawaii has enough graduates with a computer-science background to fill the local need.

The number of University of Hawaii students graduating with a bachelor of science degree rose 69 percent from 1999 to 2004, according to the school's Institutional Research Office. And the number of students enrolled in the university's Information and Computer Sciences Department rose to 749 in 2004 from 697 in 2000.

"There are a lot of qualified people with a computer background in Hawaii," said Stephen Itoga, a computer science professor at UH. "But the best will look for the best opportunities. Sometimes that's in Hawaii; sometimes it's on the Mainland. Local companies just have to be competitive with salaries."

Patrick Sullivan, chairman of Oceanit, said his company has been actively hiring 20 to 30 technical people.

"It isn't easy," Sullivan said. "There is a lack of qualified graduates coming out of the universities. The demand is greater than the supply. We've had to be a lot more aggressive about identifying people inside and outside of Hawaii. With the government now making it more difficult for foreign nationals to go to school or stay here and work, we're just shooting ourselves in the foot with that policy."