By April 5, less than five days after opening the applications for fiscal year 2014, the U.S. exhausted its quota of 65,000 H-1B visas for highly skilled foreign workers.

This is the first time since 2008 that all the slots have been filled, making it clear to us in Arnall Golden Gregory LLP‘s Immigration Practice Group that the U.S. economy is improving as companies seek urgent professional support in a range of industry sectors, including health care, IT, mechanical and automotive engineering, international accounting and research and development. 

Our law firm alone filed more than 200 H-1B cases during the week, and colleagues at other Atlanta-based firms reported similar numbers. Now that the quotas have been exceeded, a lottery is to be held to determine how the available H-1Bs are distributed to employers. 

In view of the shortage of qualified U.S. workers in key fields, employers are shouldering significant financial risks to file for H-1Bs, despite receiving no guarantees of approval to hire that coveted professional from abroad.

Companies with more than 25 employees pay close to $2,500 in filing fees, and while they won’t lose those fees if their request isn’t granted, cash and time spent on attorneys, credentials evaluations, petitions and supporting documentation are lost regardless of the outcome.

We worry about the ability of U.S. employers to compete in a world economy when it is impossible for them to hire the expertise they need to remain competitive. While foreign companies enjoy alternative visa categories to recruit necessary workers, U.S. companies don’t have this privilege. 

This problem is deeply felt in industries such as health care, as the need for professionals expands with new federal legislation. Also, as companies upgrade their IT systems, financial institutions their online capabilities and factories their lean production models, foreign nationals with advanced levels of expertise are needed.

The scarcity affects a variety of other industries as well. Many Georgia companies seeking to trade internationally require the support of professionals with language fluency, an area where the U.S. is severely lacking.

Many have criticized the H-1B program as a way for employers to hire workers at lower wages, thereby taking away American jobs. However, the H-1B program requires employers to pay the higher of the prevailing wage or the actual wage paid to similarly employed U.S. citizens and residents in an area of employment. The Department of Labor regularly audits employers to ensure their compliance.

To qualify for a visa, foreign nationals must have earned the minimum of a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. For fiscal 2014, 65,000 new H-1Bs are available to foreign nationals with bachelor’s-degree equivalency. Additionally, 20,000 are available to foreign nationals who have earned U.S. master’s degrees. Many talented graduates of metro Atlanta universities benefit from these numbers. 

As in years past, it will be up to Congress to act to support the needs of U.S. companies as they compete in the global economy – or not.

Teri A. Simmons, a partner at Arnall Golden Gregory LLP, leads the firm’s International Immigration and Naturalization and German Business practices.  She focuses on assisting international businesses with their operations in the U.S.