By Tim Loh
When Randy Fescoe sifts through resumes at Lacey Manufacturing, he’s generally searching for experts in complicated fields like biomedicine, mechanical engineering and a production method known as “injection-molding.”
This happens often enough. Times are good at his Bridgeport firm, which means the designer and manufacturer of disposable medical devices is looking to hire. Ideally, bringing in extra manpower would be simple — after all, the state’s unemployment rate is 8.1 percent, and Bridgeport’s is north of 12 percent.
“It’s amazing, you’d think people would be knocking our doors down, and people are calling,” the human resources manager says. “They just don’t have the skill sets we need.”
One place the skill sets abound is overseas. So right now, Fescoe is hoping to secure an engineer from India with an H-1B visa — a temporary, non-immigrant pass that allows high-skilled foreigners to live and work in the U.S. for a sponsoring company.
Fescoe only wishes he could hire more people that way.
“We have a large population of toolmakers here,” he says, mulling his future hiring needs. “I would say about one-third of them are going to be retiring in the next five years.”
Lacey Manufacturing is far from alone. Across southwest Connecticut, companies from Internet startups to global consulting firms to high-flying hedge funds say they’re increasingly in a labor bind — hoping to expand their payroll on the one hand, but unable to find qualified workers on the other.
In response, many businesses and trade groups are expressing deep support for the immigration-reform legislation being discussed in Washington. Among other things, the proposed reform — which sailed through the Senate but is floundering in the House — would increase the annual cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 110,000.
That could alleviate the labor market mismatch and be a boon for the economy, several regional business observers say — though to be sure, not everyone agrees.
“This isn’t you grandfather’s manufacturing; it’s a whole new world,” says Paul Timpanelli, president and CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, which openly backs the immigration reform bill.
“We have an aging population. We have a younger population that is impacted by our inability to invest wisely in education. Those two things are eliminating our ability to fill jobs,” he says. “We have to widen the pool — it’s pretty simple.”
High in demand
In fact, recent studies support Timpanelli’s point. In 2010 and 2011, the Stamford-Bridgeport metro area ranked eighth nationally in terms of demand for H-1B visas, according to the Brookings Institution. Since 1990, these visas have gone generally to foreigners in scientific, technical, engineering and mathematics fields, and typically for high-tech companies, universities and hospitals.
Meanwhile, a recent survey of 377 Connecticut firms found that, of those looking to hire, two thirds are struggling to find qualified candidates. The survey — conducted by Blum Shapiro and the Connecticut Business & Industry Association — found that more than a quarter of the firms polled have either turned to H-1B visas or plan to do so. Yet of those that have petitioned for the visas, 27 percent said they still couldn’t satisfy their workforce demands.
“Listen, we want to hire Americans, but the fact is we can’t find the skill sets or people willing to work here with those skill sets, and that’s why immigrant labor is so important,” says Joseph McGee, vice president of public policy at the Business Council of Fairfield County.
In April, the council held a forum in Stamford to discuss the problem. Liwen Yaacoby, head of Greenwich-based software company Techwuli, said that local startups have trouble holding on to tech wizards in the face of deep-pocketed Wall Street firms. Yet one possible solution — to manage a stable of employees overseas, even if they can’t actually work here — is rife with inefficiencies and headaches, she said.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Leahy, human resources manager at Norwalk’s etouches, said the online event manager firm stands to lose a valued developer from India because, after six years of work, he hasn’t been able to procure a green card.
“To anybody who thinks about this, it is so self-evident that there is a powerful economic case and business case for immigration reform,” says U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Greenwich, who attended that forum in April — and who minces no words in his blame of House Republicans for imperiling the reform bill.
While the House bill isn’t perfect, Himes told Hearst Connecticut Newspapers in a phone interview this past week, it’s one of the most sensible he’s seen in five years in Washington. It helps not just highly technical businesses, he said, but also contractors, landscapers and restaurateurs who hire legal workers but then get outbid and outpriced by rivals who hire illegally.
Finally, it would allow millions of immigrants here already to take full ownership of their American lives, he said.
“Sergey Brin’s forefathers did not come over on the Mayflower,” he said, referencing the Russian-born co-founder of Google. “The guy’s an immigrant. We need more Sergey Brins.”
There are, of course, arguments against this. Some opponents charge that there is actually no shortage of highly skilled American workers, that firms prefer hiring foreign workers on H-1B visas because they’re cheaper, can’t readily leave the company and can be easily unloaded when the visas expire.
What’s more, the legislation itself reflects a compromise between business and labor groups — it would protect workers’ wages along with upping the cap on visas.
Cynthia Mullins understands both points of view. As legal counsel and chief human resources officer at JMW Consulting, in over nearly 20 years she has brought in at least six foreign workers to the Stamford headquarters. It’s often easier to bring in foreign talent with years of experience, she says, than to train a recent business-school graduate to run big consulting gigs on leadership development.
But in 2010, while trying to bring a Canadian worker here as unemployment soared, Mullins was asked for the first time by the government for additional details. In the end, she got the visa, but developed new respect for the process.
“I appreciate our government for being so thorough,” she says. “I think we should continue to make sure we are very clear we want this person before taking a job from someone else.”
— Staff writer Olivia Just contributed to this report.
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