H-1B Visa Applications As An Economic Indicator

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The demand from American companies for high-skilled immigrants seems to be up this year. And that could mean something is about to change for the overall economy.

There is a cap on the number of visas the government gives out for these kind of workers every year. Lately, that cap has been 85,000. Demand always outstrips supply, but for the past couple of years, it has taken at least a few months to hit the quota. But this year, the H-1B visas might be gone by the end of the week.

Kramer Levin, just one big immigration firm in New York City, is having a record year with these visa applications. It represents companies that want to hire these workers. The firm is processing hundreds of requests from clients for the likes of financial analysts, software engineers, actuaries and information technology (IT) professionals.

When I visited last Friday afternoon, I saw buckets of FedEx envelopes lined up in the mailroom, ready to go. The lawyers, who'd been working late nights for months, were getting ready to go to happy hour now that everything was filed. The window opened April 1. They were done.

So what does the scene at this law firm tell us about the economy? After all, 85,000 jobs is not a lot. The U.S. economy adds an average of 100,000 jobs every month.

The surge in demand does tell us things are getting back to normal. This was the typical scene — a big push like this, at these kinds of immigration firms — before the recession, back when it used to take mere days or weeks to fill the quota.

Pia Orrenius, an economist at the Dallas Federal Reserve, says these workers are the ones companies hire to upgrade Web platforms, or expand their mobile analytics. They're the ones they hire when it looks like business is about to turn around.

"The demand for these workers comes from the demand for the services these firms produce," Orrenius says. "Once firms decide that the economy has turned around, that's when they decide to upgrade their systems."

And that could mean lots more hiring for all kinds of workers later this year.

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