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Visa Lottery May Limit Bay Area Companies Hiring Foreign Workers

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Uber offices in San Francisco. (CBS)

Uber offices in San Francisco. (CBS)

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS News) — As some people are having a hard time finding jobs, other companies are having trouble finding high-skilled workers. So many businesses, including Bay Area tech firms, are hiring from overseas that the government said Friday that there aren’t enough special-employment visas to go around.

As head of engineering at Uber, Curtis Chambers directs a staff of 40. The three-year-old company developed a smartphone app that connects riders with limos and taxis at the touch of a finger. Foreign-born workers make up 10 percent of his staff.

“I’m planning on tripling my engineering team this year,” said Chambers, “so I’m hiring a lot more engineers, and I hire them from abroad, from here, wherever the good engineers are.”

But engineers, like other highly skilled workers from abroad, need special H-1B visas. Under U.S. law, only 65,000 of these so-called “skilled worker” visas are handed out each year. This year demand is so high, the government announced Friday it will be issuing the visas by lottery.

“Literally two weeks ago,” said Chambers, “they said, ‘Hey, this might become a lottery system.’ We were like, ‘What?’ We’d hired these people planning to get them H-1Bs because it’s never been a problem before. And now suddenly all these people I’ve hired, with this plan just kind of pulled the rug out from under us.”

If he doesn’t win the lottery, engineer Gabriel Haim will be forced to return to his native France.

“I really want to try to stay here and use all the skills for the company I’m working for right now,” Haim said.

For Chambers, it’s about hiring the best people. So, then, why hire people from outside the U.S. when it has such a high unemployment rate? “In the Bay Area,” Chambers said, “it’s kind of the opposite problem. There are way too many jobs and not enough people that are skilled to do them.”

He added: “I’ve been going to the career fairs at Berkeley, at Stanford, talking to everybody I can. And they’re like, ‘I’ve got offers from Facebook, Google, all these other places.’ It’s extremely competitive right now. “

Meanwhile, there is uncertainty for those who workers who are here and affected by this lottery system. “They have no idea of whether they are going to be able to stay or go, and they won’t know for months,” Chambers said.

Chambers is waiting for Congress to increase the number of skilled-worker visas. But that, he said, is like betting on the lottery too.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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