In an effort to meet the manpower needs of the technology sector, the USCIS announced on April 4, 2008, a new policy allowing extensions of Optional Practical Training (OPT) for up to 29 months. This announcement comes as a relief to thousands of US Employers, who have been shut-out of the H-1B lottery over the past several years due to the inadequate visa numbers available for professional workers. OPT holders, usually F-1 foreign student graduates, may now obtain an extra 17 months to find or continue employment and bridge the gap until an H-1B visa or more permanent solution becomes available.
Foreign students in the US are generally eligible for OPT work authorization upon completion of their program. Theoretically, the OPT work permit is designed to allow the former student to gain some “practical” experience in their field of endeavor, although the work authorization card is not technically limited to any specific type of employment. A student on the verge of graduation usually must apply for the OPT during the last 90 days of the academic year before he completes his program, with the endorsement of the Designated School Official (DSO). OPT has traditionally been limited to a maximum duration of 12 months.
In recent years, employers seeking qualified graduates to fill “professional occupations” have faced an insurmountable obstacle: The H-1B Cap. Since only 65,000 basic H-1B visas are available for the entire world in any fiscal year, employers have been lining up their petitions for filing on the first day such petitions could be filed. In the past few years, the H-1B quota has been exhausted on the first day to file, or shortly thereafter, and last year the USCIS received some 150,000 petitions for the 65,000 available slots on the very first day to file! The H-1B cap has created a huge problem for the technology sector, which has been starved from locating talented foreign workers to fill jobs for which US workers are unavailable or unqualified.
Last year alone, Microsoft Corporation was forced to open a facility in Canada for hundreds of workers for whom no H-1B visa could be obtained to work in the US. Recently, Bill Gates testified before Congress as to high-tech sector’s need for more highly qualified graduates, noting that the limit of 65,000 visas first introduced in 1990 has become totally inadequate. Congress, however, has not responded with H-1B relief and will unlikely do so until at least 2009.
Exercising its broad policy-making authority, the USCIS finally stepped in offering interim, if not complete, relief to thousands of foreign student graduates in the US and US Employers seeking qualified workers with degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. With 29 months of employment authorization available, employers in the technology sector will be able to “attract and retain highly skilled foreign workers, giving