Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania, like many other states, has been plagued by a lack of a sufficient workforce pool to fill its staffing needs. A recent report by the Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) found that “many employers have noted ongoing challenges hiring and retaining staff, despite nominal wages that are considerably higher than those paid before the COVID-19 pandemic.” While Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate is at 4.3%, with 275,100 Pennsylvanians seeking employment, “current data show that the unemployment rate and number unemployed are relatively low not only due to strong labor demand, but also because many workers left the labor force and no longer work or actively seek employment.” With the current 1.53 ratio of job openings for each unemployed Pennsylvanian, the IFO noted that “there is an unusually high demand for workers relative to the number seeking employment,” compared to the pre-COVID-19 ratio of job openings to the number of unemployed.
Prior to the pandemic, the number of unemployed Pennsylvanians was nearly equal to the number of job openings. The post-COVID ratio of 1.53 indicates that Pennsylvania has an “unusually high demand for 105,000 additional workers.” Yes, 105,000 additional workers, at a minimum.
The need for additional staffing is particularly relevant in the Lehigh Valley, where economic growth has continued in recent years despite the pandemic. According to the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Commission’s analysis of recent reports, employment in “the Lehigh Valley metro region reached an all-time high . . . in June [of 2022], indicating a full recovery of the jobs lost two years ago when the [COVID-19] pandemic disrupted the economy. . . the Lehigh Valley was among six of the state’s 18 metro regions to add more than 1,000 jobs in June [of 2022].”
Now Lehigh Valley employers are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to attract and retain employees to meet their growing ongoing staffing needs. This has become evident in nearly every Lehigh Valley industry, regardless of what incentives are offered – from significant sign-on and retention bonuses to increased hourly wages and benefits to hybrid work schedules and more.
The growing need for talented, reputable, and dedicated employees necessitates corporate management, human resource officers, and talent acquisition professionals to start thinking outside of the box of normal recruitment by shifting these efforts, at least in part, to the worldwide workforce. With the internet’s ability to advertise employment opportunities across the globe, as well as the significant number of international students at Lehigh Valley’s colleges and universities, the time is now for employers to explore the global workforce to fulfill staffing needs.
Global Talent and Employer-Sponsored Immigration
Today Lehigh Valley employers have access to a global pool of prospective employees through the many employment visas that permit non-United States citizens to work with employers in all industries. Often, human resource personnel shy away from the United States immigration system, fearing the process itself. With competent immigration counsel, however, the employment immigration process can and should be quite smooth. Also, more often than not, prospective international employees, if hired, exceed expectations with an incredible work ethic, a desire to learn, and a commitment to the sponsoring employer that last decades.
Federal immigration law provides for a multitude of employer-sponsored visa options. For example, the H-1B visa is sought for professional workers with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. The H-1B applies to a wide array of specialty occupations such as accountants, auditors, architects, biologists, financial analysts, chemists, civil and chemical engineers, professors, database and network administrators, economists, investment bankers, graphic designers, physicians, software engineers, statisticians, surveyors, systems analysts and programmers, teachers, and therapists. H-1B visas are typically approved for three-year intervals and require the employee to work only with the sponsoring employer.
Employers with seasonal, intermittent, one-time only, or peak load needs are candidates for the H-2B visa program. The H-2B visa allows employers to hire foreign nationals to travel to the United States to perform temporary, nonagricultural work. Employers of all industries are eligible for the H-2B visa, with employment durations up to nine months per year.
The J-1 visa allows international candidates to travel to the United States for 18-month periods to take on employment in a wide array of positions, with or without degree or experience requirements. The J-1 visa is typically used for foreign nationals who are currently enrolled in or recently graduated from a foreign college or university to participate in training, internships, or summer employment.
For the many Lehigh Valley organizations with a global presence, the L-1 visa provides the opportunity for international inter- and intra-company transfers of foreign nationals to the United States. Candidates for the L-1 visa must be already working in a managerial, executive, or specialized knowledge position for a foreign affiliate, subsidiary, parent, or branch of the sponsoring United States employer. The L-1 visa permits United States employment in three-year increments, with maximum durations of six or seven years, depending on the position.
The United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement provides for a TN visa for any Canadian or Mexican citizen to enter the United States to work in one of several enumerated professional positions, such as psychologists, engineers, management consultants, architects, and professors, to name a few. A foreign national granted a TN visa is permitted to work for the United States employer in increments of three years, renewable indefinitely.
When seeking talent of high regard, recognition, and abilities, the O-1 visa is a perfect match. The O-1 visa permits individuals who have established extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, to work in the United States within their field of acclaim.
As several of the colleges and universities that call the Lehigh Valley home have significant numbers of international students enrolled, local employers have access to thousands of students each year. Foreign students graduating from a college or university are permitted to engage in up to12 months of Optional Practical Training (OPT) with any employer. International Students who have earned a degree in a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) field are eligible for an additional24 months of OPT. The OPT program is designed to allow employers and international students to develop working relationships, with a pathway to long-term employer sponsorship of the employee once the OPT duration concludes. Talent is talent, regardless of country. With the Lehigh Valley economy rapidly expanding while the talent supply is increasingly declining, employers must now, more than ever, look beyond the borders. Meaningful exploration of the global workforce and employment-based immigration is critical to any organization’s continuing existence and preparation for a future of growth.
 Where Did the Workers Go, Research Brief. Independent Fiscal Office, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Aug. 29, 2022.
 Mertz, Nicole. “Lehigh Valley Employment Fully Recovered, June Jobs Report Shows.” Lehigh Valley Economic Development Commission, Aug. 2, 2022, https://lehighvalley.org/lehigh-valley-employment-fully-recovered-june-jobs-report-shows/