Jennifer Sharp has an unusual title for an engineering company: Immigration Specialist. Her company, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL), designs and manufacturers products that protect power grids around the world. It is one of the largest employers in southeast Washington state, with 2,600 employees at its Pullman headquarters and 4,500 employees across the world. With nearly 60 offices throughout the country and 50 international locations, the company is on target to reach revenue of over $1 billion in the next five years. A 2014 Forbes article praised the company for being profitable “each of its 31 years” while remaining committed to staying put in its Eastern Washington headquarters.
Yet despite its breadth and success, the company struggles to find the qualified workers that it needs to operate and grow. Like many high-tech companies in the United States, it must turn to foreign-born professionals to fill high-skill jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
“We need to be able to hire and retain the best and the brightest people to help us in our mission to make electric power safer, more reliable and more economical,” says Sharp. Her job is to manage the complicated process of securing visas to allow the workers they need to enter and to remain in the United States.
“We recently spent over $40,000 and close to a year fighting for an employee, a software engineer from China, who played an integral role at our company,” says Sharp. “When he wasn’t picked in the H1-B lottery,” — the system by which companies can hire high-skilled workers from abroad — “he had to return to China.”
To retain the engineer, the company assigned him to one of its offices in Canada. “He was able to work for SEL — contribute to the Canadian economy — while waiting for his next chance in the H1-B lottery,” Sharp says. “In 2016, after more than a year and a half in limbo, he was finally granted the visa.”
We should be making it easier for these highly qualified, talented [immigrants] to work and contribute to the U.S. economy.
“The system doesn’t make any sense. It can be very disruptive to people’s lives,” Sharp says.
Manufacturers like SEL account for almost 15 percent of the total output in Washington, and employ almost 10 percent of the state’s workforce. SEL not only plays an integral role in making sure the region gets its power safely, but the company is vital to the economy of Whitman County.
While the U.S. government is creating programs and incentives aimed at increasing the number of Americans prepared to go into STEM fields, as a rapidly growing company, SEL needs to fill these jobs now. It can find qualified applicants overseas, or among graduates of U.S. master’s degree programs, but securing work visas still poses a constant challenge given today’s restrictive and cumbersome U.S. immigration policy.
“The foreign nationals who come here to study and work need a predictable path to residency,” Sharp says. “We should be making it easier for these highly qualified, talented people to work and contribute to the U.S. economy.”