Despite a shortage of technically skilled professionals in the state, businesses in Maine have largely avoided a federal program that allows employers to hire foreign guest workers trained in areas such as science, medicine, computers and engineering.

A report issued in October by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that in 2012, Maine ranked 41st among the 50 states and District of Columbia in intensity of demand for foreign workers through the H-1B visa program, designed to fill skill gaps in the domestic workforce and allow U.S. employers to seek out the best and brightest workers worldwide. Maine also ranked lowest among the New England states in requests for such workers per 1,000 jobs.

According to the report, about one H-1B application was filed by Maine employers per 1,000 jobs that year, roughly one-third of the national average. Even within the category of technology-related jobs, Maine seeks foreign workers through the visa program about half as often as the national average.

The lack of demand for H-1B workers in Maine seems at odds with the frequently stated goals of businesses and government leaders to attract more people to Maine to counteract its ongoing “brain drain,” caused by an aging workforce, relatively low birth rate and young adults’ tendency to leave the state. A shortage of skilled workers was identified in a 2011 analysis published by Southern Maine Community College that showed Maine businesses were projected to have 2,500 more jobs in technology and science fields through 2018 than the projected number of Maine graduates could fill. The study was funded by a $24 million jobs bond approved by voters in 2010.

Maine’s need for science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – workers is expected to rise sharply in the coming years, according to a Dec. 23 report released by the state Department of Labor. The number of science and technology-related jobs is expected to increase 6.5 percent from 2012 to 2022, which is nearly three times the rate for all occupations, it said. The expected gain of 6,800 jobs in STEM occupations accounts for 46 percent of expected net job growth.

Possible reasons why Maine employers rarely use the H-1B program include the still relatively low percentage of STEM jobs in the state and the prevalence of small businesses in Maine that pay workers less than industry standards, economists said. Another reason is a prevailing focus on growing a STEM workforce from within the state, not importing it from abroad.

Foreign-born professionals in Maine who have used the visa program said that, despite being heavy on red tape, it has provided them with great opportunities while helping to fill key roles at Maine companies and organizations.

“I believe both parties greatly benefit from it,” said Dr. Karl-Heinz Spittler, a German-born anesthesiologist who joined the staff of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor in 2003 through the H-1B program and is now its chief of anesthesia professional services. “A highly trained professional will always be grateful for and appreciative of the support given by his or her new respective employer, and the employer … will in return get a highly motivated, intellectually curious and well-trained employee.”

PROGRAM RULES

The H-1B visa program, administered jointly by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the departments of Labor and Homeland Security, allows U.S. employers to import foreign workers with at least a bachelor’s degree and applied knowledge in approved specialty occupations on a temporary basis. More than half of all H-1B visa holders work in technology-related jobs, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

The typical term of employment is three years, but it can be extended to six years, and the worker may be able to establish permanent residency by applying for immigrant status while working in the U.S.

The program currently has a nationwide cap of 65,000 new workers per year, plus an exemption for up to 20,000 additional workers with master’s degrees or higher from a U.S. college. Certain research-oriented employers such as universities and teaching hospitals are exempt from the cap.

For all other employers, qualifying applications are approved randomly via a lottery system if the number of applications exceeds the cap, which it generally does. In April, the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported it had received about 172,500 applications for fiscal year 2015, which began Oct. 1.

The H-1B program has long been considered controversial, and it has been modified by Congress over the past decade to address concerns that it takes away jobs from qualified U.S. workers. For instance, in 2004 the worker cap was reduced from 195,000 to the current number.

The visa program requires employers to pay foreign guest workers “the prevailing wage” in their industry, based on geographic area. The reasoning is that without such a wage standard, employers might use the program to undercut wages of their U.S. workers.

Employers in Maine who have hired workers through the visa program say it has helped them overcome a shortage of certain skills in the state.

At Eastern Maine Medical Center, Dr. James Raczek, senior vice president and chief medical officer, said management has used the program to recruit hospitalists, oncologists, anesthesiologists and other health care practitioners. More than 100 of the hospital’s 3,800 employees are, or started out as, H-1B workers, he said.

The hospital has recruited staff from countries including India, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Canada, Raczek said. “It’s certainly not isolated to a particular geographic area of the world,” he said.

There is a shortage of physicians in the U.S., and it can be difficult to recruit them in “underserved” areas such as Bangor, Raczek said. The visa program has helped to overcome that obstacle, he said, and most of the workers end up staying long term by renewing their visas or applying for green cards.

“Like anyone else we hire, we want them to stay,” Raczek said.

MATCHING EMPLOYERS AND STEM JOBS

One reason demand for H-1B workers is low in Maine is that it has relatively few STEM jobs, said Robert Clifford, senior policy analyst for the Boston Fed’s New England Public Policy Center and author of the report.

“STEM accounts for a much smaller share of the workforce in Maine,” Clifford said. “You wouldn’t expect a large number of (H-1B) requests in Maine.”

According to the report, STEM jobs make up 11.8 percent of all employment in Maine, placing the state at No. 31 among all states and the District of Columbia, and the lowest in New England. Massachusetts is highest in New England and the nation, with STEM jobs making up a 17.2 percent share of all employment in the state, it said. At the bottom of the list is Nevada, in which STEM jobs have a 7.9 percent share.

Still, there are not enough skilled workers in the state to fill the jobs that are available, said Jay Collier, director of the Project Login program at the advocacy group Educate Maine.

“The demand is much higher than the supply,” he said. “There is a shortage of trained people here in Maine.”

Yet Project Login, which is focused on workforce development in the computer science and information technology fields, does not talk to employers about the H-1B program because its mission is to fill the available technology jobs with Mainers, not foreigners.

“We haven’t had those conversations,” Collier said.

Even when looking at each state’s requests for H-1B workers per 1,000 STEM jobs – a comparison that cancels out differences in the number of such jobs from state to state – Maine came out on the low end.

Businesses in Maine requested an average of 6.2 H-1B workers for every 1,000 STEM jobs from federal fiscal years 2010 to 2012, the Fed report said. The national average intensity of demand was 15.8 H-1B workers for every 1,000 STEM jobs.

In New England, only Vermont had a lower intensity of demand than Maine for H-1B workers in STEM professions, at 5.2 per 1,000 jobs. That figure was 21.4 in Connecticut, 20 in Massachusetts, 13.8 in Rhode Island and 12.4 in New Hampshire, the report said.

One exception to Maine’s overall lack of STEM jobs is postsecondary education, and U.S. Labor Department records show that colleges and universities in the state do use the H-1B program to hire foreign professionals.

David Neivandt, associate vice president for research and graduate studies and director of the Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering at the University of Maine in Orono, came to the U.S. from Australia in 2001 through the visa program as an assistant professor in chemical engineering.

The process to obtain a visa took several months but went relatively smoothly, Neivandt said. The only major drawback to the program, and perhaps one reason why relatively few H-1B workers come to Maine, is that spouses are not allowed to work unless they can obtain H-1B visas of their own, he said.

Neivandt said his wife, who is educated in microbiology and chemistry, opted not to work, rather than trying to find an employer willing to sponsor and hire her under the H-1B program. But if their finances had necessitated two incomes, he said, it might have been difficult for her to find the right employer and job in a sparsely populated state such as Maine.

“I think that could be a potential deterrent,” Neivandt said.

WAGES LOWER IN MAINE

Another possible reason why many Maine employers aren’t seeking out foreign guest workers is the visa program’s “prevailing wage” requirement, economist John Dorrer said.

Technology startups in Maine that have a tougher time finding local workers with the right technical skills also are the most poorly equipped to pay the competitive salaries required to qualify for the H-1B program, he said.

A startup seeking an employee willing to accept less pay in exchange for some equity in the company likely would not qualify because the standards are strict.

“You have to meet a wage threshold,” said Dorrer, senior adviser at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce and former chief of the Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information. “Otherwise this could be a strategy to undercut wages.”

For instance, an employer in Cumberland County would have to pay an entry-level software developer an annual salary of at least $60,528 to qualify for the H-1B program, according to the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification website.

Given that the bulk of Maine’s technology companies are small, many of them could be unwilling or unable to meet that standard, Dorrer said.

And larger companies in the state that can meet the prevailing wage requirement may not need to go through the trouble of hiring workers through the H-1B program, he said.

“Employers who pay well are going to be more able to attract the workers that they want,” Dorrer said.

Still, there are a number of large organizations in Maine that hire foreign guest workers on a regular basis, according to U.S. Labor Department data.

In addition to the University of Maine System and Eastern Maine Medical Center, they include veterinary diagnostic test maker Idexx Laboratories Inc., IT services firm Infosys Ltd. and biomedical research group The Jackson Laboratory.

FUZZY DATA PICTURE

Dorrer said it’s possible there are more H-1B workers in Maine than are reflected in the U.S. Labor Department data. Staffing firms often hire H-1B workers and move them around after they come to the U.S., which happens under the Labor Department’s radar, he said.

With the rise in popularity of outsourcing, many staffing agencies are recruiting workers through the H-1B program and using them as a mobile, temporary workforce that can move from place to place, working for the agency’s various clients as needed, Dorrer said.

As a result, the number of H-1B workers unaccounted for in Maine and other states because they were recruited by out-of-state staffing agencies could be substantial, he said.

“It’s a hard thing to stop, because staffing companies have become an institution that has gained legitimacy in the labor market,” Dorrer said.

The federal government does not even know how many H-1B workers are in the country, according to a report issued in 2011 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The government keeps a tally of the number of workers approved for a visa, but it does a poor job of tracking what happens after that, such as whether they stay in the U.S. for a year, six years or permanently, the GAO report said.

“You’re only getting them as they flow through the application process,” said Clifford, the policy analyst.

Though it may not be perfect, the visa program has benefited some Maine professionals in unexpected ways.

Dr. Tarek Wazzan, medical director of Eastern Maine Medical Center’s stroke care center, said it allowed him and his wife to leave a dangerous situation in their home country of Syria. The couple left the capital city of Damascus and moved to Bangor through the H-1B program in 2013, two years into the ongoing armed conflict often referred to as the Syrian Uprising.

“(Damascus) is still much better than other areas of the country, but one still has daily concerns about safety and security,” Wazzan said.

The Syrian neurologist said he has lived and worked in the U.S. on a temporary basis in the past, but this time he plans to stay.

“We are applying for permanent resident status,” Wazzan said. “For now, we are really happy here.”