Despite the downturn in the dot-com industry, demand for skilled tech workers continues to outstrip supply in Los Angeles, and nationwide. But beginning July 30, the Immigration and Naturalization Service will aim to help fill that gap by expanding its Premium Processing Service.

The service provides expedited visa-processing privileges to certain foreign workers, such as athletes and entertainers, for a $1,000 fee. And beginning next month, the service will be expanded to include tech workers and others with specialized skills.

As a result, foreign tech workers coming to work in the United States will be able to get their H-1B visas as quickly as 15 days after they apply, rather than the four months or longer that the process now requires.

"Anything that up-front clears the way for us hiring and getting those valued employees on board would be important for our business," said David Kaye, a spokesman for Amgen Inc., the biotech giant based in Thousand Oaks.

Delays in visa processing have been a problem for Amgen, which brings in chemists, molecular biologists and others from abroad. Kaye estimates that 2-3 percent of the employees working out of the Thousand Oaks headquarters hold citizenship in other nations.

Likewise, the number of foreign workers at Los Angeles tech firms constitutes a relatively small portion of the firms' overall workforce. But they are often crucial to the operations because those being recruited from overseas are typically recognized as among the top experts in their specialized field.

"The type of expertise that Amgen needs is in pockets around the world," Kaye explained. "A lot of the things we do, you can count the number of experts on one hand."

So expediting the process for bringing such workers into the United States is long overdue, said Rohit Shukla, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Regional Technology Alliance, a private nonprofit trade organization.

"There's no question that we were and still are facing an IT (information-technology) worker shortage," Shukla said. "(But expedited visa processing) is a case of too little, too late. A couple of years ago, at the height of the high-tech boom, there was a much greater need for much faster processing."

Others said the need for high-tech workers remains acute. "There are a lot of companies and a lot of businesses that are in need of high-tech workers," said Paul N. Medved, a Los Angeles immigration attorney.

Among those companies is Amgen. "There's no downturn in biotech," Kaye said. "Unfortunately, people are always getting sick and we continue to develop drugs."

In short supply are experts in bioinformatics, in which computers are used to create models of compounds, forcing Amgen to bring in people from abroad. "If they are based in a country other than the United States, we'd like that not to be a barrier," Kaye said. He added that there is only a handful of experts in the field of genomics.

Over in El Segundo, International Rectifier Corp., a worldwide provider of power-management semiconductors, hires many of its workers from abroad. And it regularly faces waits of up to four months when trying to bring foreign hires into the United States, said Viviana Bianco, an international human resources specialist for the company.

"It's a problem because, when the managers have identified a candidate, they want him (right away)," she said.

The expansion of the Premium Processing program is one of several changes the INS has made in recent months. And not all of them have been friendly to foreign workers.

Earlier this year, the INS tightened requirements for people in the United States on H-1B visas, making them subject to deportation immediately upon their employment being terminated. They can stay if they immediately find a new employer to sponsor a visa petition, and they can begin work as soon as the new application is filed, said Medved.

"There had been sort of a laissez-faire attitude with the INS," he said. "Up until March, there was a lax, let-slide kind of thing."

All the various INS changes are certainly worth noting, but "people who are going to (hire foreign workers) are going to do it regardless," Shukla said.

Bianco of International Rectifier agreed. "High-tech companies brought people into the United States when the processing was very, very slow," she said. But faster and more streamlined processing of visa applications could be important in the case of another tech boom.

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