Inside International Immigration in Pittsburgh: A look at High-Skilled High-Paying Occupations

Pittsburgh-ImmigrationRecently we were working on a grant about how to better prepare our workforce for the jobs available to them. During this process, I was asked to investigate H1-B Visa applications. What I found altered my perception about the nature of the highly-skilled, highly-paid immigrant worker population in Pittsburgh. Between October 2012 and March 2013, one thousand five hundred and twenty-four (1,524) immigrant visa applications were approved through the Department of Labor. All 1,524 H1-B Visa are for highly-skilled, highly-paid, and hard-to-fill positions. The H-1B is a non-immigrant visa in the United States under the Immigration and Nationality Act, section 101(a)(15)(H). It allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations.

Over 150 Pittsburgh-based employers participate in this program and import workers to fill jobs that Pittsburghers either can’t or won’t take. Combined, Pittsburgh H1-B workers will earn over 120 million dollars in the coming 12 months. From a social perspective, this program is great because it is diversifying Pittsburgh by attracting people from a variety of cultures from all over the world. A culturally diverse city is interesting and attractive to potential young leaders who may consider relocating here. From a purely economic perspective, this program is also desirable—corporations get the talent they need without having to relocate, while workers move to America and enjoy meaningful salaries and gain valuable experience. However, from the local workforce development perspective, this program is one way of assessing the real gap between what Pittsburgh employers need and what Pittsburgh residents can provide.

The question is…     Are we focusing on providing training and education in right areas?

Largest Demand Occupation: Software Developer

  • Over 1/3rd of the H1-B visas requested were for software developers—586
  • 10% of H1-B visas went to Health Diagnosing and Treating Practitioners
  • 4 of the top 5 occupations were computer related—Including computer programmers and system analysts
  • Engineers rank 15th on the list of hardest-to-fill jobs after 14 other occupations such as financial analysts, management analysts, and database administrators. However, Engineers do cover 14 different occupations and together they represent 64 H1-B Visa applications

Highest Paying Occupation: Obstetrician/Gynecologist ($230,000 annually)

  • 3 of the top 5 highest paying occupations are in the medical field—Physicians and Surgeons are the highest paid foreign workers
  • The average foreign worker is paid approximately $80,000 per year with a range of $25,000 to $230,000
  • Over half (52%) of foreign workers in the H1-B Visa program make more annually than the average salary of Pittsburgh City workers ($68,000)

Other interesting occupations that made the list:

  • Chemists
  • Operations Research Analysts
  • Information Security Analysts
  • Accountants
  • Statisticians
  • Teachers

In just one year, foreign workers have stepped in to fill gaps in 104 different occupations and were hired by 155 different organizations based in Pittsburgh. Some of the $120 million dollars they will receive in the next 12 months will be re-invested back into the Pittsburgh economy; however, some money will likely be remitted to support family in foreign countries. All of the activity ultimately supports the economy. However, the presence of these workers represents an unmet employer need that workforce developers should pay attention to. Pittsburgh-bred talent should be capable of taking the jobs available around them—even if they choose not to. Currently, this is simply not the case. Employers must deal with wage floors from H1-B visas and Pittsburghers must deal with under-employment and unemployment. I believe we can benefit greatly from welcoming foreign talent and from building capacity in Pittsburgh talent. Striking the right balance will require innovative ideas. Not everyone agrees that there is a need for innovation in community and workforce development but I think this program is one of many that makes the case for innovation.

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7 Responses to Inside International Immigration in Pittsburgh: A look at High-Skilled High-Paying Occupations

  1. Seyeon Hwang says:

    This may be the case not only in Pittsburgh in every city around the world. The same thing has been prevalent in my home country, Korea, and similar questions have been posed in the region. Obviously, thanks to the enhanced “mobility,” Koreans tend to pursue higher degrees in education and prefer less taking over the technical jobs than they used to 20 years ago. Those positions are now mostly filled by people from countries with the lower level of incomes oftentimes from Southeast Asia, China and Russia. Conversely, it is quite imaginable to think of Korean workers migrating to Pittsburgh to take the positions not filled by the local workforce (e.g. it is not difficult to spot several Korean hairdressers working in the major cities in the U.S.)
    The key to providing the right training and education opportunities to the local community these days may lie in finding the “balance” between meeting the local needs and the global needs..

    • ChrystalAlexander says:

      Seyeon, Thanks so much for bringing an international perspective to the issue since we are talking about global citizens. People who move to the United States just for a job are in an interesting position. I am not sure if you know anyone who has tried out one of these visas but the sticking point is that if you lose your job you have to leave the country or find another employer to sponsor you. I really doubt that this is the best policy but there are a number of other countries that follow similar policies. Some countries do not allow workers to leave or rather encourage them to stay. From what I know about the Korean workforce, they are among the highly educated. Is the Korean government encouraging workers to stay and have you heard of Korean educated people taking jobs that are attached to visa’s like this (either here in the USA or in another country)?

  2. Venancio J. Gonzalez says:

    First, I would like to say that I enjoyed your blog. What I think is especially thought provoking is the idea that there are millions of dollars being doled out to qualified foreign workers, not because of preference, but necessity, as American workers do not have the proper credentials. Obviously the countries from which the foreign workers are being recruited have a sound idea of what American employers are looking for. The major question that immediately comes to mind is do American college students have equally accurate Intel.

    One of the main allures of college, besides parties and making the folks proud, is being able to follow one’s passions and dreams. However, there are also a good number of college freshman (who were previously high school seniors) that have little to no idea what the current job market looks like or what is in demand. For little Jerome who always wanted to be a program director for a television station, the tools remain. But what of Suzette or Erasmus, who it is impressed upon to go to college, who have to take out loans to attend and who will be asked to repay said loans a mere six months after graduation. Are they given this very profitable information?

    If the answer is yes, then perhaps it is a reflection of our society and the importance we place on education. If the answer is no, then perhaps our educators are stuck in the 1970’s educational goal of edification. While even I cannot argue against the bettering of someone’s mind, I can muster a fairly convincing stance in which I stipulate that the modern college experience has less to do with obtaining a philosophy then it does with economic gain. As well it should.

    Let us not forget that just fifty years ago there were a great many people that were not even being admitted into institutions of higher learning. With more diverse people now attending college, the importance of economic performance after graduation is crucial. I do not pretend to know, but I would imagine that a great many students would like the option to choose between their life’s ambitions or being able to live comfortably, if the two turn out to be mutually exclusive. This information should also be updated. Once the demand for computer software developer has waned, it stands to reason that another profession will be wanting.

    Likewise I do not know what this may be a symptom of, but I do think it merits some further investigation. If our citizens are lacking in the skills necessary to keep their society progressing (which testing and world rankings seem to indicate) then we, as a responsible and forward thinking people, should rise to the occasion of our own splendor. If we purport ourselves to be a technologically advanced and sophisticated society, but outsource tech to other countries, then we are no different than the Romans, known for military prowess, who hired Germanic warriors till their hold on the world slipped.

    • ChrystalAlexander says:


      I think your comment gets to the meat of what the problem is: why don’t Americans have the credentials needed to get the highest paying and most highly skilled jobs in the world? I try to refrain from being too ego-istic as an American citizen but the truth is that this country has been part of the world leadership for decades–some may say we were THE world leader for a time. We just have so many resources, it should be a no-brainer that American trained students should be able to go anywhere and do anything. However, that is simply not the case.

      Besides the well-known issues with primary and secondary education that many people are working hard every day to fix, there are more subtle issues in higher education and post-secondary training that we have yet to seriously tackle. One of those issues you bring up in your comments: should counselors guide people to careers they think will be profitable OR should they let students pick their ‘true loves’?

      I think that the situation with the H1B Visa’s imply that there have been too many people going for true love and they are generally missing the changing tides in the economy. On the other hand, people who choose careers just for the money may find years later that after many years of hating their jobs (and themselves) that their lucrative career is now obsolete and they have to retrain anyway.

      Do you see a way of creating a system that addresses these concerns?

  3. Matt says:

    Very interesting. I particularly like the research on H1-B visas and the economic implications of “brain drain” into Pittsburgh. Diversity, increased tax revenues, and the presence of high-skilled employers in Pittsburgh is vital to the longevity of the city’s economy, but due to the inability to hire local talent, an equally vital policy debate should be reached: how much longer should Pittsburgh be sourcing $120 million worth of income from other countries, instead of its own neighborhoods?

    • ChrystalAlexander says:


      You are spot on!! I want to add that I have no problems with the immigration of highly-skilled, highly- paid workers to fill any and all types of specialty jobs that may come up. There are many reasons to always keep a program like this one going. The problem comes in when companies have to continually spend time and money lobbying to keep the program alive because they need the workers.It’s inefficient. It’s not, as another commentor mentioned, a preference but rather a necessity. They have to have people because the local workforce can’t fill the positions–they are under-qualified.

      A manager of a tech firm in another city was willing to talk to me about this so I jokingly said to him “Come on, is it really that difficult to find employees locally?” (smile, nudge, nudge) His face became very serious, his eyes widened and his brow furrowed and with a heaviness in his voice, he said “Yes.” Then he began enumerating the other issues with this program, some of which I had not considered.

      His reaction was a little shocking–especially when I hear from other sources about the real economic heart-ache facing some Pittsburghers today– unemployment and under-employment are causing serious struggles. However, the desperation on the face of the under-employed isn’t altogether different from the desperation on the face of that tech manager.

      My question is: why aren’t these people talking to each other? There is mutual need, so how do we close the gap?

  4. Interesting read and well written Chrystal. I would of liked to hear more specifics on what type of innovations that can takes place in Pittsburgh and other communities around the country. I am not sure employing purely temporary workers to fill the gap in employment qualifies on itself as an innovative workforce development program. However, having recently evaluated a regional workforce development program, I understand there are certainly areas of innovation in the region.

    Mechatronics (essentially simplified to mean, but not limited to, mechanics and electronics) is one area where more investment and public-private partnerships could take place to build innovative community strategies in bridging the gap between employer needs and the capabilities of the regional workforce. The Community College of Allegheny County has helped lead the way in developing innovative, noncredit Mechatronics programs designed to bridge the capabilities gap with regional manufacturing and advanced manufacturing employers. I am convinced public-private partnerships deployed under the right circumstances can ignite a decades long growth in this related field.

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