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By: Brad Ortman, Member

Despite the worldwide pandemic, the U.S. economy remains strong, with unemployment numbers persisting at record lows. While the inflation rate has posed major challenges, consumer demand remains strong, which means that for many companies, the biggest challenge is finding talent to keep up with customer demand. To attract and retain workers, employers are raising wages and offering bonuses, yet positions remain stubbornly unfilled. Help-wanted signs and job postings are everywhere – vacation destinations, restaurants, online, and virtually wherever you look.

Can the solution to the never-ending search for talent be found with foreign workers? As is often the case with complicated and multifaceted questions, the answer is “it depends.” Clearly, the present immigration system is imperfect: most laws that govern today’s system were enacted decades ago and have not been substantially updated to account for changes in the U.S. economy and demographics. Nonetheless, hiring foreign workers may present opportunities when there are gaps in the labor market that U.S. workers simply cannot fill.

Foreign Students

One area of opportunity involves international students in F-1 status at United States universities. Nationwide, there are close to a million foreign students studying on work visas in the U.S. in any given year. Employers can hire these students for a year of Optional Practical Training (OPT) upon graduation. If the student is graduating in a STEM field, the employment authorization can be extended for an additional two years, provided the employer participates in the federal employment verification program known as E-Verify. Often students hired in this context who prove to be of long-term value are sponsored for H-1B status which provides work authorization for three years at a time for a maximum of six years during their period of OPT. Additionally, international students can also be employed in CPT (Curricular Practical Training) status during their academic program.

Work Visas

There is literally a whole alphabet soup of potential visa categories based on employment. The most common category for workers that can loosely be classified as professionals is H-1B. While this category is generally very useful, it is hampered by an annual quota that limits the number of new visas that can be issued to employers subject to the quota to 85,000. Employers can avoid the restrictions of the H-1B quota by sponsoring skilled professionals from certain countries – Canada, Mexico, Australia, Chile, and Singapore – that benefit from free trade agreements with the U.S. In addition, there are visa categories for seasonal workers, farmworkers, and many other specialized categories.


Another possible avenue for meeting workforce needs is through refugees and asylum seekers. It was projected that there would be 300,000 refugees and asylum seekers coming to the U.S. in FY2021. Geopolitical events have only added to that flow: more than 78,000 Afghans came to the U.S. following the U.S. withdrawal there in the summer of 2021, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has added to this influx with nearly 100,000 Ukrainians expected to be admitted to the U.S. through the government’s Uniting for Ukraine program. Those admitted as refugees or through humanitarian parole are eligible to obtain work authorization through that status. Refugee resettlement agencies assist these people in getting integrated into U.S. society, including in finding employment. Employers in the Cleveland area may seek to contact the Refugee Services Collaborative or Global Cleveland to link up with organizations helping refugees obtain employment.