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Human Capital

Immigration Uncertainty

Employers, especially in technology, are fearful of changes to the foreign worker visa program.
By: | April 7, 2017 • 5 min read

Uncertainty over President Trump’s travel ban and the potential for changes to the H-1B visa program have many companies contemplating the risks to foreign workers.

New proposals could call for some drastic changes to the visa program at a time when many technology companies say there’s already a talent shortage.

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At the same time, critics of the H-1B visa program, which is used for professionals in specialty fields, say some companies are playing the system to replace American workers with less costly foreign staff.

The debate is ongoing although it has heated up with the new administration’s pronouncements, leaving companies that rely on H-1B workers with both uncertainty and risk.

H-1Bs Essential to Secure Talent

Goldman Sachs estimates there are nearly one million H-1B visa holders working in the U.S., accounting for up to 13 percent of the country’s tech workforce. An H-1B visa is an employment-based, non-immigrant visa category for temporary workers.

Employers must apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on the worker’s behalf. Most applicants are required to hold at least a bachelor’s degree or equivalent training and must be paid the prevailing wage for the role.

Employers pay filing fees of between $1,570 to  $2,320 per worker for three-year visas that can be extended for up to six years. Of the 85,000 H-1Bs offered annually by the USCIS, 20,000 are reserved for those with a master’s degree or higher.

William Stock, attorney, Klasko Immigration Law Partners

If the USCIS receives more than the number of petitions in the first five business days of the annual filing system, it awards visas on a random lottery system run by computer.

William Stock, an attorney with Klasko Immigration Law Partners in Philadelphia, and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said companies have often used H-1Bs to fill roles in IT infrastructure and software development that they otherwise haven’t been able to fill.

According to Code.org, there are nearly a half-million open computing jobs, yet only 43,000 Americans graduate from college with computer science degrees annually. While many tech jobs can be outsourced overseas, Stock said there’s still a strong need for talent to be onsite in the United States.

Employers Anticipate Change

Companies of all sizes are evaluating the potential for changes in the system, said Matthew Dunn, partner with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel law firm.

While there are some steps President Trump could take on his own, Dunn said, mass changes would likely need to be approved by Congress.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., recently announced plans to introduce a bill that would require all employers seeking H-1B visas to demonstrate “good faith efforts” to find American workers first.

It would also do away with a lottery system and require that employers prioritize the top foreign students who studied in the U.S.

Dunn said it could add pressure for companies since they are already challenged with obtaining the workers they need.

“Right now, there are 85,000 H-1B visas available each year and there are over 200,000 applicants so the chance of getting one is less than 50 percent,” said Dunn.

Other proposals would boost salary thresholds for workers and remove loopholes in the existing H-1B regulations that let some work for less money than U.S. counterparts.

While there is generally bipartisan support for a vetting process to ensure U.S. workers are not being replaced by cheap foreign labor, employers are still concerned that reforms could curtail their access to talent.

Dick Burke, CEO, Envoy

In the meantime, Stock said, these employers are seeking “as many H-1Bs as they can this season” before there are changes to the law, and they’re also ensuring their salaries are competitive.

Companies are also eyeing their vendor relationships to assess their dependence on foreign workers and how changes could impact their ability to deliver products or services.

Dick Burke, CEO at Envoy, a company that helps secure work authorizations across the globe, said many employers are seeking to move foreign workers to “higher ground” by securing more durable authorization.

Mexican and Canadian citizens can be moved to a NAFTA Professional (TN) work visa and others can use an L-1 work visa, a class designed to help multinationals move more people around. Burke said other companies are even trying to help employees obtain a green card as a legal permanent resident.

“They’re really trying to take advantage of the opportunities that the immigration process permits and we’re helping our [clients] do that,” said Burke.

Travel Ban “Unpredictable”

While employers anticipate changes in the H-1B program in the coming year, President Trump’s travel ban executive order has been a more pressing issue.

Dunn said it is difficult to contend with the new “unpredictability of rules that government may require them to follow.”

“It was just sprung on companies and business travel was certainly disrupted and then plans for future travel have been put on hold,” said Dunn.

It was just sprung on companies and business travel was certainly disrupted and then plans for future travel have been put on hold. — Matthew Dunn, partner, Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel

Companies have been communicating with their “employees of concern” about adjustments and status of the ban, he said. And while some of these companies have been holding town hall-type meetings to lend support to foreign national workers, others have been taking a “wait and see” approach.

Stock said the ban has led to a great deal of uncertainty in the business community as it was “unprecedented in scope” and not tethered to “any realistic risk/benefit analysis.”

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While employers remain at the mercy of federal regulations, Burke said, many are deciding to “become more vocal” with their representatives.

There’s not only concern about changes to immigration in the United States but about how foreign governments could respond with potential retaliation. The perception that the travel ban, now being fought in the courts, focuses on Muslims may cause retribution in the global economy, Burke said.

India is the biggest provider of H-1B workers, making up nearly 70 percent of the foreign workforce.

“There’s big concern for companies with global operations. There’s a fear that if you’re not going to let our people come in, we’re going to make it very difficult for you to transact business in our country,” said Burke. &

Craig Guillot is a writer and photographer, based in New Orleans. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Report: Manufacturing

More Robots Enter Into Manufacturing Industry

With more jobs utilizing technology advancements, manufacturing turns to cobots to help ease talent gaps.
By: | May 1, 2018 • 6 min read

The U.S. manufacturing industry is at a crossroads.

Faced with a shortfall of as many as two million workers between now and 2025, the sector needs to either reinvent itself by making it a more attractive career choice for college and high school graduates or face extinction. It also needs to shed its image as a dull, unfashionable place to work, where employees are stuck in dead-end repetitive jobs.

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Added to that are the multiple risks caused by the increasing use of automation, sensors and collaborative robots (cobots) in the manufacturing process, including product defects and worker injuries. That’s not to mention the increased exposure to cyber attacks as manufacturers and their facilities become more globally interconnected through the use of smart technology.

If the industry wishes to continue to move forward at its current rapid pace, then manufacturers need to work with schools, governments and the community to provide educational outreach and apprenticeship programs. They must change the perception of the industry and attract new talent. They also need to understand and to mitigate the risks presented by the increased use of technology in the manufacturing process.

“Loss of knowledge due to movement of experienced workers, negative perception of the manufacturing industry and shortages of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and skilled production workers are driving the talent gap,” said Ben Dollar, principal, Deloitte Consulting.

“The risks associated with this are broad and span the entire value chain — [including]  limitations to innovation, product development, meeting production goals, developing suppliers, meeting customer demand and quality.”

The Talent Gap

Manufacturing companies are rapidly expanding. With too few skilled workers coming in to fill newly created positions, the talent gap is widening. That has been exacerbated by the gradual drain of knowledge and expertise as baby boomers retire and a decline in technical education programs in public high schools.

Ben Dollar, principal, Deloitte Consulting

“Most of the millennials want to work for an Amazon, Google or Yahoo, because they seem like fun places to work and there’s a real sense of community involvement,” said Dan Holden, manager of corporate risk and insurance, Daimler Trucks North America. “In contrast, the manufacturing industry represents the ‘old school’ where your father and grandfather used to work.

“But nothing could be further from the truth: We offer almost limitless opportunities in engineering and IT, working in fields such as electric cars and autonomous driving.”

To dispel this myth, Holden said Daimler’s Educational Outreach Program assists qualified organizations that support public high school educational programs in STEM, CTE (career technical education) and skilled trades’ career development.

It also runs weeklong technology schools in its manufacturing facilities to encourage students to consider manufacturing as a vocation, he said.

“It’s all essentially a way of introducing ourselves to the younger generation and to present them with an alternative and rewarding career choice,” he said. “It also gives us the opportunity to get across the message that just because we make heavy duty equipment doesn’t mean we can’t be a fun and educational place to work.”

Rise of the Cobot

Automation undoubtedly helps manufacturers increase output and improve efficiency by streamlining production lines. But it’s fraught with its own set of risks, including technical failure, a compromised manufacturing process or worse — shutting down entire assembly lines.

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More technologically advanced machines also require more skilled workers to operate and maintain them. Their absence can in turn hinder the development of new manufacturing products and processes.

Christina Villena, vice president of risk solutions, The Hanover Insurance Group, said the main risk of using cobots is bodily injury to their human coworkers. These cobots are robots that share a physical workspace and interact with humans. To overcome the problem of potential injury, Villena said, cobots are placed in safety cages or use force-limited technology to prevent hazardous contact.

“With advancements in technology, such as the Cloud, there are going to be a host of cyber and other risks associated with them.” — David Carlson, U.S. manufacturing and automobile practice leader, Marsh

“Technology must be in place to prevent cobots from exerting excessive force against a human or exposing them to hazardous tools or chemicals,” she said. “Traditional robots operate within a safety cage to prevent dangerous contact. Failure or absence of these guards has led to injuries and even fatalities.”

The increasing use of interconnected devices and the Cloud to control and collect data from industrial control systems can also leave manufacturers exposed to hacking, said David Carlson, Marsh’s U.S. manufacturing and automobile practice leader. Given the relatively new nature of cyber as a risk, however, he said coverage is still a gray area that must be assessed further.

“With advancements in technology, such as the Cloud, there are going to be a host of cyber and other risks associated with them,” he said. “Therefore, companies need to think beyond the traditional risks, such as workers’ compensation and product liability.”

Another threat, said Bill Spiers, vice president, risk control consulting practice leader, Lockton Companies, is any malfunction of the software used to operate cobots. Then there is the machine not being able to cope with the increased workload when production is ramped up, he said.

“If your software goes wrong, it can stop the machine working or indeed the whole manufacturing process,” he said. “[Or] you might have a worker who is paid by how much they can produce in an hour who decides to turn up the dial, causing the machine to go into overdrive and malfunction.”

Potential Solutions

Spiers said risk managers need to produce a heatmap of their potential exposures in the workplace attached to the use of cobots in the manufacturing process, including safety and business interruption. This can also extend to cyber liability, he said.

“You need to understand the risk, if it’s controllable and, indeed, if it’s insurable,” he said. “By carrying out a full risk assessment, you can determine all of the relevant issues and prioritize them accordingly.”

By using collective learning to understand these issues, Joseph Mayo, president, JW Mayo Consulting, said companies can improve their safety and manufacturing processes.

“Companies need to work collaboratively as an industry to understand this new technology and the problems associated with it.” — Joseph Mayo, president, JW Mayo Consulting

“Companies need to work collaboratively as an industry to understand this new technology and the problems associated with it,” Mayo said. “They can also use detective controls to anticipate these issues and react accordingly by ensuring they have the appropriate controls and coverage in place to deal with them.”

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Manufacturing risks today extend beyond traditional coverage, like workers’ compensation, property, equipment breakdown, automobile, general liability and business interruption, to new risks, such as cyber liability.

It’s key to use a specialized broker and carrier with extensive knowledge and experience of the industry’s unique risks.

Stacie Graham, senior vice president and general manager, Liberty Mutual’s national insurance central division, said there are five key steps companies need to take to protect themselves and their employees against these risks. They include teaching them how to use the equipment properly, maintaining the same high quality of product and having a back-up location, as well as having the right contractual insurance policy language in place and plugging any potential coverage gaps.

“Risk managers need to work closely with their broker and carrier to make sure that they have the right contractual controls in place,” she said. “Secondly, they need to carry out on-site visits to make sure that they have the right safety practices and to identify the potential claims that they need to mitigate against.” &

Alex Wright is a U.K.-based business journalist, who previously was deputy business editor at The Royal Gazette in Bermuda. You can reach him at [email protected]